Union: County holding back COVID, bonus pay for 2021 strikers

Members of SEIU Local 73 spent 18 days on strike last summer.

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Cook County essential workers represented by SEIU Local 73 rally outside Stroger Hospital on Thursday to demand Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle release pandemic pay and bonuses.

Cook County essential workers represented by SEIU Local 73 rally outside Stroger Hospital on Thursday to demand Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle release pandemic pay and bonuses.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Nearly a year after they ended an 18-day strike, nearly 2,500 Cook County nurses and other essential workers still are waiting for thousands of dollars in bonus pay, union leaders said at a rally Thursday outside Stroger Hospital.

SEIU 73 President Dian Palmer blasted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for holding back payouts agreed to in a four-year contract the union ratified last August, soon after ending the strike.

Union members were to receive $2,000 bonuses from a pool of federal dollars for COVID-19 hazard pay and a $1,000 bonus for ratifying the deal —but the County Board has yet to vote to finalize the contract or agree to suspend rules to release funds because of a pending arbitration ruling on two disputed points that might affect pay for a relatively small portion of the total SEIU workforce at the county.

“When this pandemic was raging, they were called heroes,” Palmer said. “These folks walked into this hospital when everybody else was trying to walk out... when there was not enough (protective equipment) to go around... when their own families were getting sick.

“And as a thank you, they don’t even get the money the federal government gave (the county) to give to them.”

A spokesman for Preckwinkle said Thursday that the payouts are on hold until a ruling on two contract provisions the two sides had agreed to settle in arbitration. The arbitration hearings were completed in October.

“Both parties agreed to an expedited arbitration process and await the arbitrator’s decision. Since then we have collaborated with SEIU Local 73 to monitor the process,” spokesman Nick Shields said in an email. “Once the arbitrator’s decision has been reached, we will then be able to finalize the collective bargaining agreement and submit that agreement to the Cook County Board of Commissioners for approval.”

The rally marked the latest clash between the union and Preckwinkle, whom the union backed in her first run for County Board president and in a failed 2019 bid for mayor. Several times in the last year, union members have asked the board to suspend rules to free up the bonus money —one-time payments that will not be affected by the arbitration ruling, which could result in wage increases for some SEIU members.

In June 2021, SEIU 73 members in the Cook County Health system, administration for the Sheriff’s Department, County Clerk’s office and other county agencies, launched a strike that the union says is the longest by a Cook County employee union in at least 30 years.

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