With Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” blaring from a loudspeaker, about 200 Cook County Health nurses stood outside Stroger Hospital Thursday, protesting what they say are chronic staffing shortages.
Nurses, who planned a one-day protest, have said they are at the “breaking point.” And they say their demands aren’t unreasonable, given the county has, they say, ample federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“People’s expectations coming out of the pandemic is that — if you’ve got $1 billion in COVID relief money, as the county has — that should be put back into the system, into frontline workers,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, 55, a nurse at Stroger for 11 years. “We can’t call us heroes last year and then not do anything with us this year. We’re insignificant? We’re not that disposable.”
The nurses also say as part of contract negotiations, they’ve been asked to pay unreasonably high health insurance premiums — premiums that would essentially eliminate any pay raise.
But the nurses say their primary concern is low staffing. They say because Cook County Health doesn’t turn away patients without insurance, they are routinely dealing with the region’s most chronically sick — patients who often require more intensive care.
“They’re piling work on and piling work on, and with this past pandemic, they’ve had nurses doing everything from emptying garbage to mopping floors,” said Latanya Dunn, 48, a nurse in the endocrinology department.
Later Thursday during a conference call with reporters, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county is doing the best it can to address nurse shortages.
“Clearly, we are working on this issue of staffing,” Preckwinkle said. “I would point out that there was a shortage of nurses in this country prior to the pandemic and, of course, the pandemic has only compounded those shortages. This is a challenge not just for us but across the country.”
Preckwinkle also said the county is in the preliminary stages of figuring out how the COVID-19 relief money might be spent and she intends to solicit ideas from the community.
“As you can imagine, a great deal of work goes into a $1 billion spending plan, and we want to do it right — in an open, honest, transparent manner,” Preckwinkle said.
There are about 1,200 county-employed nurses, union representatives said. But the Illinois Labor Relations Board ruled earlier this week that about 380 nurses could not join the strike in the interest of public safety. A court ruling Wednesday lowered that number slightly. The nurses are represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee.
A spokeswoman for Cook County Health said in anticipation of the strike, some elective and “non-urgent” procedures or appointments were rescheduled. Other patients will be given online appointments. Cook County Health also planned to bring in extra “agency nurses” to boost staff in trauma and emergency departments.
On Friday, about 2,500 county workers — custodians, technicians and administrative staff — are expected to walk off of their jobs. The workers, represented by SEIU Local 73, have been negotiating for a new contract for months. The sticking points wages and health insurance premiums.
The strike Friday is expected to further impact Cook County Health because some of those hitting the picket lines work in its facilities, including housekeeping, food service, medical technologists and physician assistants.