Tichina Haywood hasn’t gotten much sleep the past few days.
Haywood’s typical shifts as an intensive care nursing assistant at Swedish Covenant Hospital stretch for 12 hours at a time. Because she only makes $12.67 an hour — a mere 67 cents over the city’s minimum wage — she picks up a fourth, 16-hour shift to make ends meet.
“You gotta do something to compensate for the bills you have,” said Haywood, a single mother. “It’s tiring and strenuous, but I gotta do what I gotta do.”
Haywood is one of many hospital workers who find themselves “overworked but underpaid,” according to a new study done by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Labor and Employment Relations.
Bob Bruno, one of the report’s authors and a labor expert who teaches at the school, said hospitals are a major employer that many believe are profitable entities employing professionals who make a lot of money.
“While some of that is true, there’s also an underclass of employees that hospitals rely on; without the techs, the assistants and janitors, the institution can’t function,” Bruno said. “We suspected that [the] underclass was not well paid, but because they work for a hospital they’re largely invisible.”
Bruno’s report, titled “Hospital Service Work in the Chicago Region and Illinois: Stagnant Wages in a Growing Sector,” says in 2017, there were about 180,000 jobs in Chicago-area hospitals, with about 14,000 jobs in outpatient care centers.
In the city, hospital service workers, like those in food preparation, cleaning and maintenance, and healthcare support occupations make up roughly 1 out of 6 hospital employees, or 33,000.
Their estimated median hourly wage is under $15 for healthcare support occupations and under $13 for cleaning and maintenance, food preparation and service occupations. In addition, “wages have been stagnant for hospital service workers. This is despite indicators of increasing industry demand and, on the supply side, increasing educational attainment among this segment of the workforce.”
Annual median earnings for full-time Chicago hospital service workers range from $26,000 and $31,000.
Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, said the paper cites various “employment data for hospital employees, acknowledging that a significant number of staff in maintenance, food service and other support professions earn above $15 per hour in wages, a figure which does not take into account benefits packages.”
“Illinois hospitals and health systems offer stable employment opportunities at competitive wages and greatly value employees at every level of the organization, recognizing all hospital staff are vital to the delivery of quality healthcare in local communities across the state,” Chun said.
For workers like Haywood and Annette Murchison, the wages mean juggling more hours. For Murchison, a housekeeper at Franciscan Olympia Fields who makes $12.79 an hour, it’s all about making choices.
“I’m trying to hold on, but everything is going up except my check,” Murchison said. “It depresses me — I’m making choices between lights and heat, and I have to keep working. At 59 years old, there’s not too many people who will hire me because of my age, and with the work they have me doing, I don’t know if I can work there until I’m ready for retirement.”
The report recommends improving the compensation standards of hospital service workers in order to raise wages above $15, which could come through unionization. It also recommends “open pathways to career advancement within the healthcare sector should be provided.”
“Hospitals are anchor institutions, and they are seen as key contributors to the welfare of communities,” Bruno said. “Oddly, the piece that’s missing is that they employ people who are poorly paid. We want to encourage hospitals to live up to their mission and address income gaps and disparities in terms of their lowest-paid employees.”
DISCLOSURE: Some unions have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media, including the Chicago Federation of Labor; Operating Engineers Local 150; SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana and SEIU Local 1.