More than 1,500 employees of Cook County’s health care and sheriff’s departments walked off the job Tuesday morning after their union was unable to come to an agreement with the county over pandemic pay and working conditions.
Outside of Stroger Hospital, chants of workers demanding hazard pay nearly drowned out Joseph Richert, SEIU Local 73 secretary treasurer, as he said it is unconscionable that 10 months into a global pandemic that union members were still demanding proper protective gear.
“This is crazy and the county needs to act now,” Richert said.
In a statement Friday, SEIU Local 73 — the union representing county health technicians, service and maintenance workers, and sheriff’s office employees — alleged the county has refused to bargain in good faith for nearly three months, walking out on negotiations, canceling dates or refusing to set them.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she respects the rights of the employees but was “deeply disappointed that the union would ask some of its members to strike during a global pandemic.”
The county government has used coronavirus relief bill money to provide pandemic pay to employees and other unions, including members of SEIU Local 73, in hospital and other settings, Preckwinkle said in a statement.
Preckwinkle also said that courts ruled 300 critical employees were prohibited from joining the strike due to the risk it could pose to public health.
Stroger Hospital implemented contingency plans to ensure services weren’t disrupted by the strike, Preckwinkle said.
The workers are demanding pandemic pay for essential frontline workers — with a $5-an-hour raise for those in COVID-19 units or taking care of coronavirus patients — and stipulations for PPE and social distancing, including allowing employees to work remotely when possible.
The union also wants 48 workers who lost their jobs when the Recorder of Deeds office was merged with the County Clerk’s office to be given jobs as contact tracers.
“We are no longer in the business of taking what you give us, we are taking what we want,” said Jeffery Howard, SEIU Local 73 executive vice president.
Addressing union members and supporters during a video conference rally Tuesday evening, SEIU 73 Local President Dian Palmer said: “I am tired, but I’m not too tired for you. When we’re fighting and we’re getting victories and we’re moving people into a place in their lives where they can have some self-worth. I’m not too tired for that.”
“This is not the end, this is the beginning, and we’re just gonna keep fighting for it,” she added.
Contributing: Sam Charles