Natasha Brewer, a 48-year-old North Lawndale woman, works in the sterile processing department at Stroger Hospital in Chicago. She said that the hospital is severely understaffed. 

“They build new hospitals, but they don’t employ new people,” she said. “It’s just a hard place to work without the proper people to work in it. Now, they want to increase the insurance, but they don’t want to give us a pay raise, so that’s a decrease in pay. They do all these surgeries, but don’t have proper staffing. Equipment breaks and they don’t want to fix it. It’s a lot of reasons we’re out here — not just one.” 

Brewer is among roughly 2,500 Cook County workers who have been on strike for 15 days now. 

On July 9, Brewer stood near the Cook County courthouse in Maywood with several dozen of her fellow SEIU Local 73 members. The union is demanding parity with other unions representing Cook County employees. 

In late June, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office reached contract agreements with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), National Nurses United and the Teamsters. 

But members of SEIU Local 73, which includes maintenance workers, administrative personnel and medical personnel like certified registered nurse anesthetists, say their negotiations with Preckwinkle’s administration have stalled. 

One of the main points of contention is the Preckwinkle administration’s unwillingness to budge on its offer of an 8.5  percent pay raise that the union argues is inadequate to cover other proposed expenses. 

For instance, the union argued that there is currently no incentives rewarding long-term workers, no pay raises for the county’s lowest-paid workers, such as housekeepers and custodians, and no raises to cover health insurance increases. 

“They are charging us more for our health insurance and cutting our benefits at the same time. And they didn’t offer raises to cover the health insurance increase which amounts to a pay cut for all workers,” said Dian Palmer, the president of Local 73. “Their offer creates problems and offers no solutions. We cannot let this continued disrespect stand.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a “letter from the county sent to commissioners and management said, “Based on the County’s calculations, the average pay increase for SEIU members over the life of the contract is in alignment with all other unions which have reached tentative agreements. (This does not include the value of upgrades and adjustments to wage scales which provide an even greater salary increase to employees.)”

Workers who were out in Maywood on July 9, however, said that their grievances go well beyond pay increases. 

Sylvia Kizer, 60, said she’s been working in housekeeping with the county for 29 years. Since the pandemic struck, Kizer said, she’s contracted COVID-19 twice. 

“I caught it in December 2020 and then again in March 2021,” she said. “I know I caught COVID on the job. I have to ask for personal protection equipment (PPE) and I work with biohazards. I’ve worked in areas where we’re not informed that the patient has COVID. It’s a lack of respect, a lack of dignity, a lack of necessity. They don’t see us as grown people and they don’t see us as human beings.” 

oyce Klein, a 33-year-old social worker with the county, said that she’s been supporting COVID patients during the pandemic and making sure they get appointments with their doctors. 

“That’s hard when the hospital is so severely understaffed,” she said. “The coordination is always impossible, but during the pandemic it became even more so.” 

Ericka White, 52, a 30-year county employee who said she was laid off roughly 10 years ago before the SEIU fought for 18 months to get her job back, explained why she was in Maywood on Friday. 

“This fight is necessary, because many, many county employees are very low wage workers,” White said. “I’m blessed to make a decent salary, but there are so many of us that don’t. Finally, somebody is fighting on their behalf. Finally, we have the courage and strength to fight for ourselves. We know we deserve better, so we’re going to keep fighting until there’s no fight left.”