Some Chicago-area health care workers say a staffing crisis is endangering patients and are calling for hospitals to improve working conditions by hiring more staff and upping wages.
Nurses, certified nursing assistants, patient techs and other workers with the Service Employee International Union Healthcare Illinois coordinated a citywide day of action at eight area hospitals Thursday. They “marched on the boss,” in which workers go together to confront supervisors about a grievance.
“It’s been tiresome and stressful,” said Vickki Dennis, who works as a housekeeper at a hospital in Gary, Ind. “The workload is heavy, and I wish [the hospital] could hire more people. Right now, the ones that are here, we are overworked and underpaid.”
She said the staffing shortage affects patients, with some waiting in emergency rooms for long periods of time.
“Some people [stay in] the emergency room … maybe two days or something waiting on a room,” Dennis said.
Anne Igoe, vice president of health systems at SEIU Healthcare Illinois, said the staffing shortage and low pay have been long-standing issues that precede the pandemic.
“This has been going on for a long time,” Igoe said. “What workers are doing today [marching on the boss], they’ve done dozens of times before.”
She added that hospitals are continuing to “staff to the bone” because they see the shortage as a temporary labor issue. Many facilities have hired workers through temporary staffing agencies at higher hourly rates, she said, because they believe the labor pool will return.
However, Igoe said, many workers are getting burned out and leaving the industry.
“So much more is being asked of them, and their bodies can’t take it anymore,” she said.
Newer, would-be health care employees, Igoe added, are going to places like Amazon or other retailers that pay more.
Hospitals — especially ones like Northwestern Memorial Hospital which “has the resources, in terms of millions of dollars of revenue” — should invest in its frontline staff and in providing care for patients, Igoe said.
“Northwestern has the ability to pay more,” Igoe said. “Year after year, they are investing money into their investment accounts, and we’re not seeing that come back to the hospital.”
Christopher King, chief media relations executive for Northwestern Medicine, said in a statement to WBEZ, “The health and safety of our employees and patients is our highest priority. Finding qualified employees today is an issue for every industry and health care is not immune.”
He said the hospital is “actively working to implement strategies to support our employees and redesign how work is done,” and he hopes SEIU will help Northwestern Memorial “identify candidates for the 190 positions that are currently open.”
Bernice Toney has worked at Northwestern Memorial for 12 years, first as a patient tech and now as a secretary. She said her working conditions have steadily been declining in the past 10 years, but much more rapidly during the pandemic. She said she has been filling in as secretary for four different floors, instead of one.
She said she and other hospital workers attempted to deliver to management more than 400 “Assignment Despite Objection” forms, which are forms that workers can fill out when they are forced to work short-staffed.
As for Northwestern’s efforts to relieve the staffing crisis, she said, “I can’t tell you what they’re doing because it seems like it’s nothing.” She added that Northwestern does not pay workers enough to keep them long term.
Staffing shortages have been well documented in the Chicago area, including one at Cook County Health, the biggest safety net health system for the most vulnerable low-income patients in the region. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle this week admitted the county is facing thousands of open jobs, calling it a “staffing crisis” she is trying to address.
According to studies, understaffing at hospitals can lead to poorer outcomes for patients. One study from the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing found that for every additional nurse on staff, patients are 14% less likely to die in the hospital.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.