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Chicago Nurses Are Going on Strike—And Management Is Bringing in Scabs Through a Text Blast

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | Twitter

Nurses and support staff in the Chicago area are joining other militant healthcare workers across the country by walking off the job, despite attempts by their bosses to hire strikebreakers.

On Thursday, over 2,700 Chicago-area nurses and support staff at Cook County Health (CCH) are planning to go on strike, the latest example of rising worker militancy in the healthcare sector. 

The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) and SEIU Local 73?—?which respectively represent 1,250 nurses and 1,500 medical aides, therapists, technicians, clerks, housekeepers, food service workers and patient transporters at CCH?—?have each been in contract negotiations with the county since last fall. 

Citing dramatic staffing shortages, the two unions are teaming up to demand CCH invest in employee recruitment and retention by improving pay and benefits.

Rather than investing in long-term employees, the unions say CCH has been increasingly relying on temp workers hired through staffing agencies like SnapNurse. With the threat of a walkout looming, management is aggressively trying to bring in even more temps to serve as strikebreakers.

In These Times obtained a text blast sent out by SnapNurse last week seeking prospective scabs. Referencing ?“a pending strike notice in Chicago,” the text message explains that strikebreakers will be paid between $4,620 and $6,468 per week?—?more than regular CCH nurses make. ?“Respond with STRIKE to deploy,” the message says.

CCH and SnapNurse did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an email to employees last week, CCH’s recently hired CEO Israel Rocha, Jr. said management was ?“taking all steps necessary to ensure the delivery of safe patient care in the event of a strike.”

“Nurses are at the breaking point throughout the Cook County Health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital and a chief representative of NNOC. ?“We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday.”

Consisting of Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as over a dozen clinics in the city and suburbs, CCH is one of the nation’s largest public health systems. Its predominantly Black and Brown patients are often uninsured or under-insured, meaning they delay seeking care and therefore face critical health needs. Stroger Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in Illinois, treats the highest number of Chicago’s gunshot victims (and was the setting of the hit television show ER in the 1990s).

The nurses and support staff say that instead of valuing their labor and listening to their concerns, the county has been dragging out negotiations, offering paltry raises that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living and seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance.

“We are striking because we are tired of being mistreated, undervalued, underserved, disrespected and cast aside,” said Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member. 

The nurses plan to be on strike for 24 hours, but may call more strikes in the near future. The SEIU Local 73 members?—?who already held a one-day work stoppage at CCH in December—intend to hold an open-ended strike.

“Our members are willing to strike for as long as it takes to achieve a fair contract,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said. ?“It is time for Cook County to take these negotiations seriously.”

Over the past 15 months, healthcare workers have been on the front lines of the Covid pandemic, organizing and striking in states like IllinoisWashington and New York to secure adequate personal protective equipment and safer staffing levels. In Massachusetts, union nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for more than 100 days?—?the longest nurse’s strike in the United States in over a decade. Meanwhile, thousands of previously unorganized nurses in North Carolina and Maine successfully voted to unionize in recent months.

The pandemic has fueled the uptick in healthcare worker militancy because it ?“revealed to a lot of us how little our employers care about our lives, and frankly how little they care about our patients’ lives,” Elizabeth Lalasz, a clinical nurse at Stroger Hospital and NNOC steward, told In These Times.

Throughout the pandemic, Vargas said, ?“hospital management has abused, disrespected and abandoned us. Because management treats nurses as expendable, we were not given adequate personal protective equipment, and over 150 of us tested positive for Covid-19.”

NNOC and SEIU Local 73 are calling on management to tap into some of the $998 million in federal funds Cook County is receiving from the American Rescue Plan to invest in the healthcare workforce. 

“Every day we learn of another experienced nurse who resigned for a better job because Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients,” Vargas explained. ?“With each loss of an experienced nurse, we see years of skills and expertise vanish. In one six-week period, I saw a hundred years of experience walk out of my department.”

CCH CEO Rocha’s salary is $650,000 a year. His predecessor, who was dismissed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in late 2019, received $542,000 in severance pay.

“It doesn’t make any sense for upper management to be making that kind of money when we desperately need people to be recruited and retained,” Lalasz said. ?“We need money for staff and support on the front lines, not for money to be given upwards, or pocketed.” 

This would be the third time in the past two years that SEIU Local 73 went on strike in conjunction with a fellow union. In 2019, Local 73 workers at Chicago Public Schools hit the picket lines alongside their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union. And last year, 4,000 Local 73 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike at the same time as hundreds of UIC nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association.

Besides its members at CCH, nearly 1,000 SEIU Local 73 members at Cook County Jail and other county offices are also set to strike on Thursday. 

Both Local 73 and NNOC have expressed disappointment in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is the ultimate decision-maker on management’s side. Preckwinkle, who doubles as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 on a pro-union platform with the backing of Chicago’s progressive unions.

“For years I’ve worked in politics, particularly with Toni Preckwinkle, who said she would work with the unions to ensure they had contracts with fair wages. She’s turned her back on us,” said veteran civil rights activist James Phipps, a Local 73 member who works at the county clerk’s office. 

Preckwinkle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she issued a statement last week calling the staffing shortage at CCH ?“a mutually shared concern.” Regarding management’s demand to raise health insurance costs for workers, she said it has been six years since the last hike and that a new increase ?“is needed in this round of bargaining.”

“It doesn’t matter, you have a billion dollars in Covid relief money and yet you’re asking us to double our healthcare and only take a minimal increase in pay,” Lalasz said in response to Preckwinkle’s statement. ?“We shouldn’t be the people who are suffering…Without us doing the work we do, this hospital system will not function.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst


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Thousands of health workers lose jobs in COVID crisis, while major hospital chains get richer

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Congress provided $100 billion in emergency funding to hospitals to respond to the coronavirus crisis in the CARES Act passed back in March. That was supposed to provide about $108,000 per hospital bed across the country, to help hospitals meet the resource gap they were experiencing and to ramp up infrastructure to meet the coming demand. The legislation gave wide discretion to the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the distribution of the funds, without imposing many constraints. That was a bit of a mistake, as an investigation from The New York Times demonstrates.

They’ve analyzed tax and securing filings from 60 large national hospital chains that received collectively more than $15 billion of that funding. They found that a lot of that money went into the pockets of CEOs while thousands of employees—health care and support workers—were furloughed, laid off, or had their pay cut. For example, HCA Healthcare, worth $36 billion and a chief executive was paid $26 million in 2019. HCA got $1 billion in emergency funding, but “employees at HCA repeatedly complained that the company was not providing adequate protective gear to nurses, medical technicians and cleaning staff,” and in May, “HCA executives warned that they would lay off thousands of nurses if they didn’t agree to wage freezes and other concessions.”

Of the 60 hospital chains the Times looked into, at least three dozen have laid off, furloughed, or cut the pay of their staff to “try to save money during the pandemic,” despite the fact that among them they’ve got tens of billions in cash reserves. The five highest-paid executives among these chains were paid a collective $874 million in the last year financial data was available. In interviews with more than a dozen workers at these hospitals, the Times found the it’s the front-line staff that’s been hurt the hardest—custodial and cafeteria workers, and nursing assistants. They also said that “pay cuts and furloughs made it even harder for members of the medical staff to do their jobs, forcing them to treat more patients in less time.”

The Mayo Clinic got $170 million in CARES funds, despite having something like eight months worth of funding in reserve. It has furloughed or cut hours for 23,000 employees, though one of the spokespeople who has not been furloughed tells the Times that Mayo executives have cut their own pay. Seven other chains—Trinity Health, Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan; SSM Health and Mercy in St. Louis; Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis; and Prisma Health in South Carolina—received a collection $1.5 billion and among them have let 30,000 employees go, either permanently or temporarily. Tenet Healthcare got $345 million in bailout money, and has furloughed 11,000. Stanford University’s health system got $100 million (it has 42.4 billion in reserve) and “is temporarily cutting the hours of nursing staff, nursing assistants, janitorial workers and others at its two hospitals.” The spokesman for the system says that those reductions are intended “to keep everyone employed and our staff at full wages with benefits intact.”

HCA, however, is the biggest villain here. The $1 billion—One. Billion.—it got in emergency grants is the largest. But in the past few months, the medical staff at 19 of its hospitals have filed Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints over lack of personal protective equipment, including respirator masks and gowns. At least two HCA employees have died from coronavirus because they didn’t have adequate PPE. Celia Yap-Banago, a nurse in Kansas City died in April. She treated a patient without wearing PPE. At an HCA hospital in Riverside, California, Rosa Luna and her fellow janitorial staff clean rooms of coronavirus patients, and haven’t been provided proper masks. Rosa Luna died last month, at the same time that HCA executive were warning the unions representing hospital workers that “unless the unionized workers amended their contracts to incorporate wage freezes and the elimination of company contributions to workers’ retirement plans, among other concessions.”

Yes, all of these systems have lost money because pretty much everything but coronavirus care has stopped in the last few months; elective surgeries and procedures have been cancelled, non-coronavirus emergencies like car wrecks have plummeted with stay-at-home orders. But these huge hospital chains, which have received disproportionate amounts of CARES bailout funds, have billions in reserve collectively. They have CEOs bringing home millions in salary and bonuses. They can afford to keep their staff.

They need to be required to use some of the bailout money to retain and pay staff at current, if not enhanced, hazard rates. The bailout funds have already been highlighted as problematic because they were not meted out by coronavirus case numbers, but by a formula that allowed HHS to send the money out fast whether it went to hospitals that needed it most or not. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis last month showed that the wealthiest hospitals, with the highest care of private insurance revenue, were getting the bulk of the emergency grants: “hospitals in the top 10% based on share of private insurance revenue received $44,321 per hospital bed, more than double the $20,710 per hospital bed for those in the bottom 10% of private insurance revenue.”

This blog originally appeared at The Daily Kos on June 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joan McCarter is a Contributing Editor for the Daily Kos.


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Indiana Working Families Win Dramatic Improvements In Workers’ Compensation Insurance

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe Indiana State AFL-CIO fought for and won dramatic improvements in the workers’ compensation system this year. Over the next three years, several major increases in benefits and new workers’ rights will be phased in. This will mitigate the effect of workplace injuries on those hurt on the job and their families in the Hoosier State, the Indiana State AFL-CIO reports.

The first part of the new legislation will increase wage replacement benefits. Starting in July 2014, the cap (currently at $975) will be raised by 20% over the following three years to a total of $1,170 in 2016. More workers will receive a full two-thirds of their weekly wage.

The next effect of the legislation deals with increasing compensation for people permanently impaired from a work-related injury. Current law requires doctors to determine how much the injuries impair the employee and compensation is paid to the injured party based on the severity of the impairment. Starting in July 2014 and phased in until 2016, the compensation for work-related injuries will be increased 18 to 25% (based on the severity of the impairment).

Finally, the last new effect of the law will be to place a cap on the amount hospitals will be paid for their services. Hospitals will be paid 200% of the amount Medicare would pay for the same service. Injured employees will not be charged for medical services, which are paid by the employer or the employer’s insurer.

Nancy J. Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, applauded the changes as a move in the right direction via press release:

“Let’s be clear: it’s never OK when your job hurts. And we have a long way to go to make our worker’s compensation system what it should be for workers and their families when an injury does happen. However, these increases are the largest increases workers have won in decades and they begin to move us in the right direction. “

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO NOW on July 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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