AUSTIN — An 11-day strike at Loretto Hospital is over after the workers and the hospital tentatively agreed to a new three-year contract Thursday evening.
The deal comes after a chorus of elected officials joined about 200 striking SEIU Healthcare workers — including emergency room technicians, mental health workers and radiology technicians — on daily picket lines outside Loretto, demanding more public accountability for the “safety net” hospital that has received millions in public funding.
The embattled hospital — which reshaped its leadership after Block Club Chicago revealed corruption scandals funneled COVID-19 vaccines to wealthy neighborhoods and sent millions in contracts to insiders — had been paying union workers about $2 an hour below industry standards, union officials said.
Efforts made their way up to Rev. Jesse Jackson, who joined striking workers for a vigil Thursday morning and was instrumental in “the final push” to settle the contract, said Anne Igoe, lead negotiator for union SEIU Healthcare.
The new contract hinges on starting wage increases across positions that are more in line with industry standards, Igoe said. A patient care technician or certified nursing assistant could now join the job at $19 an hour instead of $17 and change, Igoe said.
Workers will also receive an average raise of 14.5 percent over the three years of the contract, Igoe said.
Juneteenth will be recognized as a staff holiday, and Loretto will add an additional personal day holiday on top of that, Igoe said.
The deal is expected to be ratified Friday, and some workers returned to the hospital for shifts Thursday night, Igoe said.
The low-income hospital, which primary serves Black and Brown patients on the city’s West Side, remained opened during the course of the strike under “contingency plans,” Loretto spokesperson Bonni Pear previously said. Union organizers and West Side leaders claimed the hospital attempted to bandage the conflict with temporary workers instead of offering long-term raises to veteran staffers.
Pear previously said the union was “demanding” 20 percent wage increases under a new deal. And strikers were “causing safety and patient care issues by blocking public alleys and hospital entrances,” Pear said.
In a latest statement, Pear said the hospital is “pleased” by the new labor agreement.
“We appreciate the dedication of union and hospital leaders to secure a contract that addressed the concerns of our team members,” Pear said. “It is critical that Loretto Hospital remains open and accessible to the Austin community. We will continue to partner with SEIU, clergy, corporate and community stakeholders to secure the funding and resources needed for the hospital’s long-term growth.”
Striking workers rejoiced Thursday, calling the new contract a “victory.” They hope the higher rates of pay will attract more staff to stop shortages and ease dangerous working conditions.
About 120 union workers had left the hospital in the last year because of subpar pay, contributing to a 60 percent turnover rate, said Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois. Those who remain juggle multiple positions at once and work up to seven days a week, leading to injuries, workers had said.
“I went on strike because the Austin community deserves a fully staffed hospital where patients don’t have to wait for hours and hours for a clean bed,” Yolanda McPhearson, a lead crisis worker and bargaining committee member, said in a statement. “It’s common sense that we can’t address a staffing crisis without paying workers livable wages. This contract is a huge win for safe staffing and quality care.”
Loretto patient care teach Carla Haskins called the new contract “a win for all of Austin.”
“This fight has always been about securing quality healthcare for Loretto patients and Austin community members,” Haskins said in a statement. “[It’s] a community we workers belong to ourselves.”
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