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About 2,500 Cook County employees threaten to strike June 24

Stroger Hospital nurses, social workers and other employees in the Cook County health system are planning a one-day strike for the same day to protest staffing levels.

The exterior of Stroger Hospital
Stroger Hospital nurses, social workers and other employees in the Cook County health system plan a one-day strike June 24.
Sun-Times file

Cook County workers — including custodians, technicians and administrative staff — plan to go on strike later this month, protesting what they say are inadequate wages and burdensome health premiums.

In total, about 2,500 workers represented by SEIU Local 73 plan to strike June 24, a union official said Thursday.

In addition, Stroger Hospital nurses, social workers and other employees in the Cook County health system are planning a one-day strike for the same day to protest what they say is a chronic staffing shortage.

County employees have been bargaining with the management for months without reaching a break-through, union representatives said Thursday.

“Nurses are at a breaking point throughout the Cook County health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital, speaking during an online news conference Thursday.

“We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday. We are calling on Cook County Health to work with us to put in place concrete plans to recruit and retain nurses. We must make this plan part of our contract in writing, as we have been offered empty promises too many times and things do not get better.”

Vargas said nurses are quitting their county jobs daily because “Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients.”

There are about 1,200 county-employed nurses, union representatives said. Registered nurses are represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee.

“Cook County fully understands our nurses are striking over staffing shortages. Let us be clear: this is a mutually shared concern,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement. “Before COVID, there was a nationwide shortage of nurses. The pandemic has only compounded this shortage — exponentially. Now, not only do we have a nursing shortage, but because of the devastation wreaked by the pandemic we have shortages in critical health care and first responder positions.

“We also understand our employees are upset because we asked to increase their employee contributions for health care. Let’s be clear, county is known for having one of the best health insurance plans and our employees pay [9 cents] on a dollar. We have not asked employees for an increase in six years, even though our costs have increased. This is needed in this round of bargaining.”

Earlier this month, probation officers, clerical staff and assistant public defender and others took to the streets to protest what they say is a meager pay increase offer from their employer, and one all but erased by a demand to pay higher health insurance premiums.

Workers and their unions say they have been negotiating with Cook County for months — since their contract expired near the end of 2020 — and that those negotiations have reached a standstill. The county is offering about a 1% raise for each of the four years of the contract but is also asking employees to double the percentage they pay toward monthly insurance premiums, workers say.