U of I Nurses Begin 7-Day Strike Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

University of Illinois nurses strike
Mirriam Doggan (left) and Crystal Miles join their nursing colleagues to strike Saturday outside the University of Illinois hospital on Chicago’s West Side. Kate McGee / WBEZ
University of Illinois nurses strike
Mirriam Doggan (left) and Crystal Miles join their nursing colleagues to strike Saturday outside the University of Illinois hospital on Chicago’s West Side. Kate McGee / WBEZ

U of I Nurses Begin 7-Day Strike Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

More than a hundred University of Illinois Hospital and Clinics nurses showed up on the picket lines with blue t-shirts, signs, and umbrellas as they began a seven-day strike Saturday morning in the rain.

The nurses voted to strike in August as their three-year contract expired. The contract was extended to September 7, but the union and hospital system could not agree on multiple contract issues after 20 bargaining sessions.

They’re demanding the hospital add more nurses and set a limit on the number of patients assigned to each nurse, known as “safe patient limits.” They say current staffing makes it difficult to provide adequate care to patients and leaders force them to prioritize administrative goals over patient needs.

“If you have a nurse that’s overworked and she has too many patients we’re going to have more patients dying!” said Mirriam Doggan, a pediatric nurse at U of I for more than 30 years. “We’re going to have more accidents, we’re going to have more mistakes.”

A statement from the hospital system’s CEO Michael Zenn says they’re disappointed they could not come to an agreement with the 1400 nurses represented by the union and will continue to work to end the strike.

“We believe we have been fair and generous to the INA [Illinois Nurses Association] throughout negotiations and in our last offer, reflecting our respect and commitment to our nursing colleagues,” Zenn said.

Nurses also rejected the hospital’s three-year wage freeze proposal and are demanding more reliable personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses on the picket lines said they were asked to reuse sanitized N95 masks five times before receiving new masks. The union called for more PPE in March after 12 nurses tested positive for the virus and they’ve raised concerns about the number of nurses falling ill.

The hospital said as of Saturday 129 nurses have gotten sick from the coronavirus.

Union leaders also want to remain involved in the hospital’s process to set adequate staffing levels. Doris Carroll, INA president, said the hospital wants to reorganize a state mandated group, called a nursing care committee, which determines adequate staffing numbers. Carroll says the hospital wants to meet twice a year instead of monthly.

“To wait twice a year to find out what is going on with staffing is horrendous,” Carroll said.

Currently, the hospital uses a system called an acuity model that uses a variety of metrics to determine how many nurses are needed to care for a patient based on their current health condition. But nurses say they are given too many patients to adequately serve each one. Plus, they argue not every nurse is trained to work in each unit. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses were working in different units. But Doggan said that shouldn’t be the norm.

If you’re a patient “on the [medical surgery] unit and you have open heart surgery during COVID, would you have a nurse with 20 years experience as a dermatology nurse being your nurse?” Doggan said. “Well, that’s what was going on here.”

Zenn’s written statement pushes back against some of the union’s proposals.

“The [Illinois Nurses Association] is demanding one-size-fits-all staffing ratios that are too rigid and remove flexibility,” the statement read. “Fixed staffing ratios ignore fair workload distribution among peers on a shift-to-shift basis and result in longer Emergency Department wait times, increased ambulance diversion hours, reduced patient services, and higher operating costs.”

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit against the union earlier this week to try and stop the strike. It argued there are 12 units where it would create a public safety issue if the nurses did not show up. A judge agreed, prohibiting 535 nurses from striking during work hours.

Crystal Miles, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit for more than 30 years, will have to return to work next week due to the court injunction. She says she’s striking on her days off because units desperately need more nurses.

“You can go your whole shift and not get to the washroom,” Miles said. “A lot of nurses get urinary tract infections. …You don’t get a lunch break. What kind of conditions are those?”

This strike begins as 4,000 clerical, technical and maintenance workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago plan to start their own strike on Monday, Sept. 14. Workers said UIC’s administration has failed to protect employee working conditions amid the pandemic. They are continuing to negotiate with the administration over the weekend.

INA said they were in bargaining negotiations until 1:30 am Saturday morning without movement and do not have another bargaining session scheduled with the hospital system. But nurses hope the strike will bring administrators back to the bargaining table to consider their pleas.

“They have a big sign [outside the hospital] that says, ‘heroes work here,’” said Doggan. “But they’re treating us like we don’t matter.”

Kate McGee is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @McGeeReports.