From heroes to ‘zeroes’: Cook County Health workers say they’re getting crumbs as jobs are filled with private contractors

About 100 Cook County Health workers and their supporters rallied in protest Friday outside Stroger Hospital.

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Cook County Health workers protest outside Stroger Hospital on Friday, May 26, 2023.

Cook County Health workers protest the use of private agency workers Friday outside Stroger Hospital.

Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

About 100 Cook County Health workers and their supporters rallied outside Stroger Hospital on Friday, accusing the county of “turning their backs” on them by filling vacant positions with private contract workers who often aren’t up to the job.

“The morale has never been lower. ... We are short-staffed and overworked,” said Veronica Williams, a Stroger Hospital surgical technologist, standing in front of her workplace Friday.

She said contract workers are “Band-Aids on a problem that is only getting worse. Many of the agency staff provided to the hospital are simply inexperienced and lack knowledge and means to conduct quality care.”

SEIU Local 73, the union that represents about 2,100 county health system workers, says the county has spent about $500 million on contract workers since 2018 — to make up for staff shortages, a nationwide problem.

“An agency-heavy workforce lowers the quality of care to county patients and takes away stable union jobs,” said Dian Palmer, the union president.

Temporary contract workers currently fill about 600 county health care jobs, Palmer said.

“They don’t know the hospital. They don’t know the policy and procedures. They don’t even know their way around, and our members have to help them do their job,” Palmer said.

Instead, Palmer said, the county should be filling those positions with union workers and offering them a retention bonus. So far, Palmer said, the county has come to the table with “regressive proposals.”

“The county offers workers crumbs,” she said. “The county calls you heroes, but treats you like zeroes.”

In a statement, Alexandra Normington, a spokeswoman for Cook County Health, said: “The national health care workforce shortage, significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is hitting hospitals across the country and Cook County Health is no exception. CCH is working ardently to hire more staff across the health system. Yet, as every hospital in our region can attest, there are simply more open positions than candidates.

“We are positioning CCH as an employer of choice by offering competitive salaries, generous benefits and PTO,” Normington said. “Thanks to support from President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Board of Commissioners as well as the CCH Board of Directors, CCH is piloting new recruitment and retention incentives for select positions. We are actively working in good faith to bargain these bonuses for select SEIU positions, like we have successfully done for positions in other collective bargaining units.”

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