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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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Groundbreaking Bill in Illinois Would Give Temp Workers Equal Pay and Rights as Direct Hires

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Sweeping legislation introduced in the Illinois state legislature last month would dramatically improve pay, benefits and working conditions for almost a million of the state’s temp workers toiling in factories, warehouses and offices.

The Responsible Job Creation Act, sponsored by State Rep. Carol Ammons, aims to transform the largely unregulated temporary staffing industry by introducing more than 30 new worker protections, including pay equity with direct hires, enhanced safety provisions, anti-discrimination measures and protection from retaliation.

The innovative law is being pushed by the worker centers Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) and Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), which say it would restore the temp industry to its original purpose of filling short-term, seasonal labor needs and recruiting new employees into direct-hire jobs.

Across Illinois, there are nearly 850,000 temp workers every year. Nationally, temp jobs are at record highs, with more than 12 million people flowing through the industry per year.

“Instead of temps just replacing people who are sick or coming during periods of higher production, they’re actually becoming a permanent staffing option,” says CWC executive director Tim Bell. “There’s nothing ‘temporary’ about it.”

Mark Meinster, executive director of WWJ, says there has been “an explosion” of temp workers in recent decades, especially in manufacturing and warehousing. “Those sectors are part of large, global production networks where you see hyper competition and an intense drive to lower costs. Companies can drive down labor costs by using temp agencies.”

CWC activist Freddy Amador worked at Cornfields Inc., in Waukegan, for five years. He tells In These Times the company’s direct hires start off making at least $16 an hour, but later get raises amounting to $21 an hour. As a temp, however, Amador was only making $11 an hour after five years on the job.

“As a temp worker, you don’t have vacation days, sick days, paid holidays”—all of which are available to direct hires, Amador says.

In These Times reached out to Cornfields to comment on this story. It did not immediately respond.

“Once a company is using a temp agency, it no longer has to worry about health insurance, pension liability, workers’ comp, payroll and human resources costs,” Meinster explains. “It also doesn’t have to worry about liability for workplace accidents, wage theft, or discrimination because, effectively under the law, the temp agency is the employer of record.”

This arrangement drives down standards at blue-collar workplaces, Bell says. “The company itself doesn’t have to worry about safety conditions because these workers aren’t going to cost them any money if they’re injured.”

“The safety for temp workers is really bad,” Amador says. “Temp agencies send people to do a job, but nobody trains them. Sometimes temp workers are using equipment they don’t know how to use, and they’re just guessing how to use it. I’ve seen many accidents.”

Under the new bill, temps like Amador would receive the same pay, benefits and protections as direct hires.

“This is landmark legislation,” Bell says. “There’s nothing like it in the United States.”

Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting found a pattern of systemic racial and gender discrimination in the temp industry nationwide. Industry whistleblowers allege that African-American workers are routinely passed over for jobs in favor of Latinos, who employers consider to be more exploitable.

Discrimination can be hard to prove because staffing agencies aren’t required to record or report the demographics of who comes in looking for work. As Bell explains, applications often aren’t even filled out in the temp industry, but rather “someone just shows up to go to a job.”

The new bill would require temp agencies to be more transparent about their hiring practices by recording the race, gender and ethnicity of applicants and reporting that information to the state.

Furthermore, the bill includes an anti-retaliation provision that says if temp workers are fired or disciplined after asserting their legal rights, the burden is on the company and temp agency to prove that it was not done in retaliation.

“There’s this fundamental imbalance in the labor market that leads to a whole range of abuses and then non-enforcement of basic labor rights,” Meinster explains. “The changes we’re proposing in this bill get at addressing that structural issue.”

To craft the bill and get it introduced, CWC and WWJ received research and communications support from Raise the Floor Alliance, a coalition of eight Chicago worker centers. The Illinois AFL-CIO, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Employment Law Project, Latino Policy Forum and Rainbow Push Coalition are among the legislation’s other supporters.

Though the Illinois government is still paralyzed by an unprecedented budget stalemate between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, organizers are optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

“There’s potential for huge movement around this bill,” Bell says, citing the popularity of the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, which both touched on the theme of economic insecurity. While Trump focuses on jobs fleeing the country, Bell notes that “jobs here in this country have been downgraded.”

“We need to be talking about job quality, not only ‘more jobs.’ Both are important,” Meinster says. He believes existing temp jobs “could and should be good, permanent, full-time, direct-hire, living wage jobs with stability, respect and benefits.”

The author has worked with WWJ in the past on issues related to the temp industry.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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Obama administration cracking down on bosses who use temp workers to dodge labor laws

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Businesses don’t just use temp staffing agencies to add workers for short periods when they need extra hands. Staffing agencies can also serve the valuable (to crappy employers) purpose of dodging responsibility. “That person may work in our business on our terms, but the staffing agency is their employer, so we’re not responsible for violating labor laws to exploit them,” is how the dodge basically goes. Now, the Department of Labor is taking steps against that, issuing guidelines on when the company using the staffing agency to hire temp workers should be considered a joint employer that’s responsible for the people working in its facilities.

“I think the majority of noncompliance that we see is people just not getting what the law is, and what their responsibilities are under it,” [Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division director David] Weil said in an interview. “We also find cases of people who are clearly playing games, and clearly trying to shift out responsibility, and often have structured things in a way that lead towards more noncompliance.”

Weil’s division has stepped up its proactive enforcement of situations where companies are functionally controlling the workers they order up from labor providers — and broadcasts its enforcement of egregious violations. Back in October, for example, investigators found that temp workers at a snack food producer in New Jersey were cheated out of overtime wages, and ordered the company to pay back wages, damages, and civil penalties.

That’s the most typical form of joint employment — a “vertical” arrangement, with one company hiring another, as the guidance describes. But joint employment can also be “horizontal,” when a worker might employed by two subsidiaries of the same company, but they never get overtime because their hours are tracked separately.

Business groups and congressional Republicans are predictably pissed that the Obama administration would have the nerve to suggest that employers follow the law, with House Republicans pointing out that the Department of Labor talked to the National Labor Relations Board, which is also cracking down on joint employer issues.

Low-road businesses have found a lot of ways around laws protecting workers, from these joint employer dodges to misclassifying workers as independent contractors to deny them minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, and more. And every time the Obama administration cracks down, it’s a reminder of what’s at stake this November. The next president won’t just argue with Congress or even appoint Supreme Court justices. The next president will make the appointments that determine whether the Department of Labor is trying to make sure workers get paid for the hours they work or is looking for ways to let bad bosses off the hook.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on January 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.


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Remembering Day Davis – and Standing Up for Temp Workers

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COSH-networkAt 3 p.m. on August 16, 2012, Duquan “Day” Davis reported to work at a Bacardi bottling plant in Jacksonville, Florida. It was his first day on the job, on assignment for Remedy Intelligent Staffing, a temporary employment agency. For Davis, 21, a recent graduate of the federal Job Corps program, the temp job at Bacardi was his first job ever.

Less than two hours after showing up for his first shift, Davis was dead. The young worker had been sent to clean out broken bottles that were clogging a palletizer. While he was out of sight, the machine was started up again, crushing him to death.

In Feb. 2013, OSHA cited Bacardi for 12 safety violations and proposed $192,000 in fines against the company, finding that the firm had not trained temporary employees – or its full-time employees – on the lock out and tag out procedure that could have prevented the start-up of the machine that killed Davis. “A worker’s first day at work shouldn’t be his last day on earth,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

The fine against Bacardi was later reduced to $110,000. Remedy Intelligent Staffing – Davis’ actual employer – was never cited. The temp firm is part of the Select Family of Staffing Companies, America’s fourth-largest industrial temp agency, with $1.9 billion in revenue in 2012.

Davis’ story – and the heartbreak felt by the family and fiancée he left behind – is hauntingly told in the independent documentary “A Day’s Work.” The film was produced by David DeSario, himself a former temp worker. It features Barbara Rahke, executive director of PhilaPOSH and board chair of National COSH, and was screened at the National Conference on Worker Safety and Health in June of this year.

“A Day’s Work” is gaining attention at film festivals and from labor and safety audiences in cities across the country.  You can see the documentary at upcoming screenings  in Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington DC.

This year, some 14 million Americans will work on assignment to a temporary agency. Three years after Davis’ tragic death, only a few states have laws on the books that offer protections for temporary workers, among them Massachusetts and California.

  • In 2012, after successful lobbying by MassCOSH and other groups, Massachusetts passed the Temp Workers Right to Know Law. It requires agencies to key details of job assignments, in writing, to temp workers.
  • In 2014, following a push by WorkSafe, SoCalCOSH and other advocacy groups, the California legislature passed a law will requiring host employers and their staffing firms to take joint responsibility for the health, safety, and rights of temporary employees.

Too often, temp agencies and host employers still try to pass off responsibility for proper safety procedures. The host company says: “They’re not our employees.” The temp agency says, “It’s not our workplace.” As a result, workers fall through the cracks. A review of data in five states by the investigative news website ProPublica found that temps are 36 to 72 percent more likely to get injured at work than full-time employees.

That’s why safety advocates are calling for national standards. Recommendations from National COSH, the National Staffing Workers Alliance and the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association include:

  • A clear definition of responsibilities of host employers and temporary staffing agencies in complying with the health and safety laws
  • A written policy specifying health and safety training requirements for temporary staffing agencies
  • Increased and better tracking of injury and illnesses for temps
  • Improved protocols when OSHA investigates incidents involving temporary employees.

For more information on temp workers, see the National COSH Campaigns page.

Also, check out upcoming screenings of “A Day’s Work” in Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington DC.  To schedule a screening of “A Day’s Work” in your community, contact: TempEmployees@gmail.com

This blog originally appeared at Coshnetwork.org on August 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. “Preventable Deaths 2015,” a National COSH report, describes workplace fatalities in the United States and how they can be prevented. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.


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