Essential workers at Loretto Hospital announced July 9 that they would strike if their demands for higher pay and better staffing are not met by the hospital.

About 180 workers represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois have been bargaining with Loretto since December, but say the hospital has not made efforts in good faith to meet their demands for better compensation and workplace rights. The union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike that would begin July 20 if no progress is made.

Union organizers said the collective action dubbed #StrikeForBlackLives would push the hospital to address the safety and wellbeing of both patients and workers at the hospital. Loretto’s frontline essential workers and the community served by the hospital are both predominantly Black and have long suffered from a lack of equity that has left them vulnerable to poverty, COVID-19 and other underlying illnesses union representatives said.

“At Loretto, we see a lot of people whose health and lives are on the line because of accidents or shootings—but we see even more people whose lives are at risk because of poverty and stress,” said ER Tech Wellington Thomas.

Some communities served by Loretto Hospital face a life expectancy 16 years shorter than in wealthier white communities like Streeterville. Union members said Loretto’s low wages contribute to the social circumstances that lead to these health disparities.

“Investing in Black lives and Black communities like Austin isn’t just about investing in medical supplies and or in operating budgets,” said Greg Kelley, head of SEIU Healthcare Illinois. “It’s also about investing in a workforce so that folks who provide care can also take care of themselves and their families. It means paying decent enough wages.”

Kelley said the strike would be a last resort, and that the union hopes it does not come to that.

Beyond wage increases, employees are demanding more staffing to alleviate shortages that have left them overworked and underpaid.

“A human body can only take working so many hours without rest. Can only take so much stress, can only take so much work. And if you don’t get paid enough for the work you do, you have to work more than one job,” Thomas said. “If you’re always short staffed, you have to do the work of more than one person.”

Thomas said being overworked, juggling multiple jobs and the anxiety of struggling to makes ends meet has contributed to high blood pressure and other chronic illness that makes him and other staffers more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Hospital representatives said they have made every effort to meet the demands of workers. But as a safety net hospital, Loretto has limited resources and can’t afford across-the-board wage increases at the level requested by the union. Instead the hospital has offered performance-based annual raises.

“We feel we have offered them favorable terms especially in light of what is going on in the economic environment,” said Mark Walker, the hospital’s director of community relations.

According to Walker the hospital has been proactive in making sure that no layoffs occurred during the pandemic, whereas many other hospitals did furlough employees. Frontline workers fighting COVID were also given hazard pay.

Walker said the hospital hopes to avoid any disruption in services to the community because of the strike, especially since the West Side has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“We are doing everything in our power to negotiating in good faith,” Walker said. “Our basic mission is to remain open to serve this community and we hope to be able to do so and not have to limit any services or go on bypass because of the strike.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.