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U of C Medical Center closes trauma centers ahead of planned nurses strike

Unionized nurses have threatened to walk off the job from the South Side hospital just before Thanksgiving if the sides can’t agree on a new contract.

Striking nurses rally outside the University of Chicago Medical Center in September.
Striking nurses rally outside the University of Chicago Medical Center in September.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The University of Chicago Medical Center announced Wednesday it has closed its trauma centers, blaming the Hyde Park hospital’s unionized nurses who are threatening to go on strike next week for the second time in two months as contract talks stall.

While the hospital’s pediatric Level 1 trauma program was closed Monday and its adult program Wednesday, its emergency rooms remain open to walk-in patients but ambulances are being diverted to other hospitals.

About 2,200 nurses represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United have said they’ll walk off the job the morning of Nov. 26 for a one-day strike, just like they did Sept. 20.

But as in the first strike, the hospital says they’ll lock out the striking nurses for five days because they say that’s the minimum length of a job stint “to best recruit qualified and experienced replacement nurses.”

That means if they do strike, the unionized nurses won’t be back until Dec. 1.

“We are acutely aware of the vital role we play in providing critical services to the South Side,” University of Chicago Medical Center President Sharon O’Keefe said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it appears that the timing of this second strike is designed to inflict the maximum impact on the community and on our patients.”

As required by law, the nurses gave 10 days notice of their latest threatened strike, and the hospital started transferring high-risk patients and rescheduling elective surgeries earlier this week.

The hospital opted to temporarily close its trauma program because other area hospitals are at or near capacity and can’t accept their patient transfers, and because it’s difficult to find substitute nurses willing to work over Thanksgiving, O’Keefe said.

Lisa Sandoval, a registered nurse at U of C who works as a pre-kidney transplant coordinator, called it “disheartening” to be on the precipice of another strike.

“But the nurses are standing strong in their desire for adequate staffing, first and foremost,” Sandoval said. “We’ve been in bargaining for eight months now, and we can’t seem to come to an agreement over what adequate staffing looks like.”

The hospital says it has proposed adding more full-time positions in response to the union’s staffing concerns, but the sides have hit an impasse over issues related to incentive pay — an increase in hourly pay rates after a nurse has worked 24 hours in a week. The hospital says they’d continue offering it for current inpatient nurses, but they want to cut it off for new hires.

Sandoval said the hospital has only offered to hire new charge nurses while also eliminating positions for patient care support nurses.

“They’re taking away in order to give us something else, when in reality we need both,” she said.

The nurses’ four-year contract expired in April. It’s still possible the sides could hammer out a deal to avert the strike. Bargaining sessions are scheduled Thursday and Friday, and could continue into the weekend.