Nursing strike ends, another begins involving Chicago healthcare workers

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A one-day strike by about 900 nurses at Cook County Health ended June 25 as other workers at the Chicago-based health system began to strike, according to hospital and union statements.

The nurses who went on strike are represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United. They work at John H. Stroger Jr. and Provident hospitals, as well as at the system's clinics and at the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Health system spokesperson Alexandra Normington said in a June 24 news release that Cook County Health augmented staffing with agency nurses in key areas during the nursing strike.

The health system said Stroger Hospital also went on ambulance bypass June 24 for emergency department and advanced life support cases. Cook County Health also rescheduled some nonurgent appointments and procedures.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee, which has been in negotiations with the health system since October, 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 Hospital, 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."

Cook County Health has said it continually hires nurses and has hired nearly 800 of them in the last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha Jr. told the newspaper June 24, "Cook County Health like every other hospital in the country is always working diligently to try to recruit and retain and attract the best nursing talent anywhere in the country and we definitely are working and making good strides to try to bring more nurses onto our system."

The National Nurses Organizing Committee represents 1,250 nurses throughout Cook County Health. However, the county received a court-ordered injunction to prevent more than 300 nurses from walking off the job following an order from the Illinois Labor Relations Board, according to the Tribune.

Now, Cook County Health "continues to have appropriate staff to meet the essential care needs of our patients as the nursing strike concludes and SEIU Local 73 strike begins," Ms. Normington said in a June 25 news release.

Social workers and other employees represented by SEIU Local 73 are scheduled to strike indefinitely beginning June 25.

SEIU Local 73 represents about 2,400 workers in Cook County, including workers in Cook County Health at Stroger and Provident hospitals. SEIU members at Cook County Health include housekeeping, food service, medical technologists, respiratory therapists, ward clerks, mental health workers, physician assistants, medical assistants and care coordination staff. 

About 2,000 SEIU workers planned to be on strike, although Ms. Normington said the Illinois Labor Relations Board identified more than 300 SEIU positions within Cook County Health that should be enjoined and prevented from striking, and that ruling was formalized through a court-ordered injunction June 24.

Eric Bailey, a union spokesperson for SEIU Local 73, told the Tribune key points of contention include pay equity, pay related to the COVID-19 pandemic and retiree health benefits.

SEIU Local 73 has been in negotiations for more than nine months.

Like with the nursing strike, Cook County Health has rescheduled some nonurgent appointments and procedures originally planned for June 25.

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