Sinai Health, employees reach a deal, averting a strike

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois and Sinai Health System were able to reach a preliminary agreement three days before the labor union was scheduled to go on strike.

The labor union represents 400 employees, including certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietitians, technicians and transportation workers employed by two Mt. Sinai Hospital, 1500 S. Fairfield Ave, and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, 1401 S. California Ave. The workers had been without a contract since June. On Oct. 2, the union officially voted to authorize a strike, but it wasn't until Oct. 31 that it delivered a 10-day strike notice, allowing them to strike by Nov. 11. 

The two sides were able to come to an agreement on Nov. 8, only a few hours before the workers were scheduled to hold a pre-strike picket in front of Mt. Sinai Hospital. While they have been vague on the details, they did make it clear that the contract would include salary increases, smaller health insurance contributions for the workers and higher staffing levels. And while the contract didn't resolve the issue of nurses seeking union recognition, SEIU Health Illinois intends to keep advocating for the nurses. 

Following the original strike authorization vote, union spokesperson James Muhammad explained that employees had several major issues, including meager earnings, low staffing levels and a lack of community investment on the part of Sinai Health System. 

During the Nov. 8 joint press conference between the union and the hospital system, SEIU Health Illinois secretary Alice Jones said she experienced the effects of low pay first-hand.

"My job is critical to keeping the community healthy, yet I was paid so little that I couldn't afford to pay my rent," she said.

SEIU Heath Illinois spokesperson Catherine Murrell wrote in an e-mail that, under the new contract, the pay was brought closer to other Chicago area hospitals.

"Before this new contract, 72 percent of hospital service workers at Sinai made less than $15 an hour, which amounts to a poverty wage in Chicago," she wrote. "That's compared with 61 percent of hospital service workers in the Chicago area, and 55 percent of hospital service workers in Illinois. The new contract will bring all Sinai service workers to at or above $15 within the first six months of the contract — meaning that workers are helping to set a new standard for wages within the hospital industry."

During the Nov. 8 press conference, Karen Teitelbaum, president and CEO of Sinai Health System, praised the negotiators on both sides for their hard work and described the new agreement as a win for staff and patients.

"The contract that we agreed to will lift the standards for wages, staffing, healthcare coverage and working conditions for hundreds of our certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietary and transportation workers, while ensuring high-quality care for our community," she said. 

"Sinai has been providing high-quality care for people in need," Teitelbaum added. "That's been a heart of what we do for 100 years, and I really applaud the hard work of the negotiating team from Mt. Sinai and SEIU, to reach an agreement that will allow us to collectively look forward on our mission, and I continue to serve [and] improve the health of the most vulnerable communities in Chicago."

SEIU Healthcare Illinois president Greg Kelley echoed Teitelbaum's gratitude, while adding that the workers' tenacity and willingness to strike, if necessary, made the contract possible.

"Our members here at Mt. Sinai are tremendously proud of the gains they made in this contract, especially the pay and staffing levels," he said. "Today's victory is a significant step towards lifting up the workers standards throughout the Chicago area hospital industry, a workforce that is disproportionately black and brown, and largely female. 

"Because of their commitment and their tenacity, Sinai workers have won significant wage increases, bringing them much closer to the wages of staff at other Level I trauma centers in Chicago," he said. "They have also secured higher staffing levels, which we believe will improve both working conditions and the quality of patient care throughout the entire hospital"

Jacqueline Walter, a housekeeper, said that, with the new contract, she'll receive the first raise she's gotten in nearly five years of working at Sinai Health. 

"And we're getting better staffing levels," she added. "That makes a big difference to me."

The negotiations unfolded as registered nurses in the Sinai Health System attempted to gain union representation. They are currently seeking to be represented by SEIU Health Illinois. 

When asked about the state of the nurses' unionization, Teitelbaum said the negotiations only dealt with the currently unionized staff, but Kelley explained that the SEIU proposed adding the nurses to the union during contract talks. 

"To be clear, we did propose that at the table," he said. "We were not able to get that agreement. At the end of the day, the hospital won that, but we maintain that those workers have a right to form their union. And we'll continue to make that case."

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com 

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