Loretto’s unionized workers on strike demand safe staffing and better wages | Francia Garcia Hernandez

The picket line assembled bright and early on Monday outside Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave. Around 50 healthcare workers stood behind union leader Greg Kelley to go on strike, after contract negotiations over the last 10 days failed according to the union. As previously reported, union representatives and workers delivered a 10-day strike notice on July 19 as they demanded better wages, hours and staff levels. 

“Workers have been given no choice from Loretto’s management but to go on strike today to address Loretto’s failures,” Kelley said. “This a crisis caused by Loretto’s refusal to pay the living wage necessary to have safe staffing levels.”

The union represents around 200 healthcare workers who went on strike Monday at 7 a.m. Bargaining will continue, Kelley said, but the hospital will have to increase its wage offer and staffing levels. 

A lack of competitive wages has led to a 60% turnover rate, causing Loretto’s staff to “wear many hats” while on shift, continuously work overtime and risk patient and staff safety, he said.

The union demands wage increases for unionized staff, including first-year wages. An increase could help attract talent to the severely understaffed hospital and reduce turnover, priority issues in this contract negotiation. They also demand that Loretto recognize Juneteenth as a regular work holiday. 

So far, Loretto has only offered annual raises of about 2-3 percent across the board, below inflation, union reps said. In a statement released Sunday night, Loretto Hospital’s management called the first-year wage increases “impractical.”  

“$17 is not an impractical starting rate,” the union’s lead negotiator Anne Igou said. “$19 an hour for a CNA is not an impractical starting rate.” 

At Mount Sinai Hospital, another safety net hospital, certified nursing assistants earn $2 more than their counterparts at Loretto. 

Unionized workers echoed Kelley’s claims, saying they must work overtime but they continue to show up for the patients they love. 

“I’m working six to seven days straight just to make ends meet,” said Jessita Davis, who has worked at Loretto for five years.” Is that fair to me? Is that fair to our families?” 

Union representatives said they are disappointed with the use of state funds by management, adding that they learned the state gave the hospital around $8 million as part of the provider relief fund, a program designed for worker retention and development. Instead, Loretto’s financial team said the money will be used for capital improvements and debt payouts. 

Several elected officials, including Austin locals Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) and Cook County Commissioner (1st) Tara Stamps, stood in solidarity with the workers, asking Loretto’s management to provide fair wages and a fair contract to the hospital’s unionized staff.

Ford, who resigned from Loretto’s board in 2021 over its misuse of COVID-19 vaccines, said management can’t be “pennywise” in bargaining and must provide fair wages that will allow the hospital to provide services to the community that needs them most. 

“I would demand that Loretto Hospital and its management team come together, get back to the table and find $400,000,” he said, adding one of the negotiation items would only cost Loretto Hospital $400,000 over three years.  

“Whatever we can do in the state, let us help, but let’s not continue to strike,” said Ford. 

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) and South Side representatives State Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. (33rd) and State Sen. Robert J. Peters (13th) also backed up the workers. 

Evans Jr. questioned where the state funds assigned to Loretto go if they’re not being used to pay the workers and called on management to reorganize and “take care of their workers.” 

On Sunday night, Loretto Hospital said the hospital has not been able to reach an “equitable and sustainable agreement” with the union. In a statement, the West Side hospital’s representatives said that if union members went on strike “it is solely because the SEIU wants impractical first-year wage increases.” The hospital remains open and has contingency plans to continue to operate, hospital representatives said in the statement. 

Austin pastor, Rev. Ira J. Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, said he is one of many West Side faith leaders ready to support the healthcare workers. 

“We should not allow management to put a permanent poverty status on our workers,” he said. “It’s an insult.”