Loretto Hospital staff and their union reps on July 19 delivered a 10-day strike notice to the West Side hospital’s management and demanded competitive wages and an increase in staffing levels. Unionized workers denounced the hospital and said it is in a crisis “they cannot fix without management’s cooperation” saying it is severely understaffed which undermines worker safety and performance.
“Today they are standing up for themselves to say what they are faced with, that Loretto cannot continue and we are preparing to strike,” union leader Greg Kelley, president of Service Employee International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (SEIU HCII), said at a press conference outside of the safety net hospital at 645 S. Central Ave.
Kelley called on the hospital’s leadership to “do what’s necessary to change the conditions at this hospital and change the conditions for the folks who rely on this hospital.” Several workers echoed his plea, calling on Loretto management to “do the right thing.”
“When we asked Loretto to agree to the minimum wages required to address short staffing, what other hospitals are already providing, they just flatly refused,” Kelley said. “And unless Loretto changes its stance, we will be out on strike.”
Union officials said about 200 Loretto workers are ready to go on strike in 10 days if they cannot come to an agreement with Loretto’s management over a “fair and decent contract.” Hospital workers are demanding that management take steps to increase staffing across departments and raise wages. Those steps, they said, would reduce staff turnover and improve hiring, they said.
“Staff become injured due to a lack of staffing,” said Wellington Thomas, lead ER technician at Loretto Hospital.
Loretto’s workers demanded competitive wages, “similar to what other hospitals pay,” Kelley said, adding substandard wages increase staff turnover and drive short staffing. He was unable to give specifics regarding the increase in pay demanded citing varying pay grades across job positions. He alluded to a contract negotiated with Mount Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale by the union earlier this year which included “significant” wage raises and “language” to address staffing issues.
“We came to the table but after going back and forth bargaining, it was in my opinion almost a disappointment,” Thomas said, adding management “has failed to acknowledge” the value of health care workers, which increased after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loretto’s workers denounced management, saying it has failed to hire more permanent staff to fill in vacant positions across several departments. Last summer, they called on state lawmakers to step in to address the hospital’s short staffing to improve patient and staff safety. Kelley said the hospital has failed to uphold its promises; for example, workers were promised to have at least 3 to 5 ER technicians in the emergency room but they say there are only two technicians and at times, only one.
“Many agencies are hired to keep the hospital afloat,” Thomas said. “How about bringing in some appropriate rates to the hospital workers that dedicate themselves and retain these staff employees?”
Union officials said staff vacancy rates range from 25% to 35%. Thomas estimates some departments have up to 40% vacancy rates. In the last 18 months, about five healthcare workers were injured while performing their job, he said. Three of them required surgery, he added. Austin Weekly News was unable to confirm this information with Loretto Hospital officials.
Short staffing has also pushed workers to work long hours with limited time off. It is common for staff to work six to seven days a week, with 12 hour shifts each day, Kelley said. “How is it even sustainable?” he asked.
Tabitha Fulton, a nuclear medicine technician at Loretto Hospital, said it takes all departments to run a hospital, from environmental services to dieticians to other roles that are unfulfilled or have high turnover.
“It’s very hard to run a hospital missing those important roles, so everyone here needs to have a living wage,” she said.
Chicago activist Andrew Holmes, who attended the announcement to support Loretto’s unionized workers, called on elected officials to support unions outside election time.
“When you’re running, you want these unions to support you and you want their members to vote for you,” Holmes said. “Guess what? Come over here and help us.”
The union could reach an agreement in coming days as it is in “constant conversations” with management, Kelley told Austin Weekly.
While there is hope that Loretto’s new leadership will move in a different direction than prior administrations, the union wants to send a message that workers are prepared to do what is needed to bring change to a hospital that has been “under served and under resourced” for years, he said.
Loretto Hospital is one of three Illinois safety net hospitals –including Roseland Hospital and St. Bernard Hospital – negotiating at the bargaining table, union officials said. “The days for settling for less are over,” Kelley said, adding Loretto’s healthcare workers want to make sure their voices are heard, joining other labor movements nationwide demanding employers do better.