Chicago health system prepares for nurses' strike

Chicago-based Cook County Health has postponed some elective and nonurgent procedures or appointments as it prepares for nurses to walk off the job.

Nurses represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United, are scheduled to strike for one day, on or after June 24. Social workers and other employees represented by SEIU Local 73 are scheduled to strike indefinitely beginning June 25.

SEIU Local 73 represents 2,449 workers in Cook County, including workers in Cook County Health at Stroger and Provident hospitals. The National Nurses Organizing Committee represents 1,250 nurses throughout Cook County Health.   

Strikes could still be averted. But in the meantime, Cook County Health is preparing.

Alex Normington, a spokesperson for the health system, said in a statement that Cook County Health "has made arrangements to ensure the continued provision of safe care for our patients."

She said the health system seeks a court-ordered injunction following a decision by the Illinois Labor Relations Board that more than 300 nurses should not be allowed to strike.

Angela Walker, a Cook County Health nurse and union member, told the Chicago Tribune, the National Nurses Organizing Committee plans to appeal the board's decision. 

Ms. Normington said the health system also will augment staffing with skilled agency nurses in priority areas, including trauma and emergency departments, operating rooms and inpatient units. Some elective and nonurgent procedures or appointments have also been rescheduled, and telehealth will be used to accommodate some scheduled appointments.

"Cook County Health remains dedicated to providing safe, life-saving care during this job action and beyond to meet the needs of our patients," said Ms. Normington.

News of the strike plans comes during negotiations for both unions. SEIU Local 73 has been in negotiations for more than nine months, and the National Nurses Organizing Committee has been in negotiations since October.  

The National Nurses Organizing Committee said the largest sticking point for nurses in negotiations is a failure to address persistent staffing shortages throughout Cook County Health.

In a news release, Consuelo Vargas, RN, an emergency room nurse at Stroger, said: "Many patients have gone without care during the pandemic and are now beginning to seek treatment for their ongoing medical conditions. Yet we are constantly understaffed, and because of that, we are losing experienced nurses."

Ms. Normington told the Tribune that Cook County Health continually hires nurses and has hired nearly 800 of them over the past year.

Eric Bailey, a union spokesperson for SEIU Local 73 — which represents workers in offices under the Cook County president, in the County Clerk's Office, in the Sheriff's Office and at Cook County Health — told the Tribune key points of contention include issues such as pay equity, pay related to the COVID-19 pandemic and retiree health benefits.

He said no new bargaining dates were scheduled as of June 23. The National Nurses Organizing Committee said that as of June 22, no additional negotiations were scheduled between the union and Cook County Health before June 24.

Read the full Tribune article here.  

This story was updated at 12:20 p.m. CST on June 23.

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