A nurse’s strike planned Saturday at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago poses a “clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public,” according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
The university is seeking a temporary restraining order against the Illinois Nurses Association, which represents more than a thousand nurses at UIH. The union held a successful strike vote last month following a breakdown in negotiations over a new contract. Staffing levels are the key issue.
The courts attempted to halt strikes at UIH when previous contracts expired in 2017 and 2014, “and the risk is made even more severe in 2020 by the complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the lawsuit. A hearing on the restraining order is scheduled Wednesday, an INA spokesperson said.
Hospital labor issues are hardly new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up attention to nurse grievances as providers have scrambled to obtain adequate personal protective equipment and maintain enough staff and other supplies on hand.
At the same time, the health crisis has made their services more important than ever.
Allowing nurses from 12 units at the hospital to strike would endanger public safety due to the unique nature of the services provided in those units, specialized needs of patients they serve and lack of qualified substitutes to perform nurses’ duties, the hospital argued in its lawsuit.
The nurses fired back. “If UIH is serious about nurses being irreplaceable, it should drop the lawsuit and return to the negotiating table and bargain in good faith,” an INA spokesperson said in an email statement. “Your patients and employees are depending on it.”
UIH nurses were under a three-year-contract that expired Aug. 24 and was extended until Monday. The two sides held more than a dozen negotiating sessions throughout the summer, “though little progress has been made toward a new contract,” INA said in a release.
Nurses aren’t the only ones planning to strike at UIH — clerical, professional, technical, service and maintenance workers, represented by another union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 73, are also planning to strike Monday, an SEIU 73 spokesperson said.
The two unions have been working on separate contract negotiations, though they share grievances against their hospital employer, namely adequate staffing.
UIH said in a Tuesday statement that it’s “not seeking to enjoin all members of the INA from striking, but, instead, has narrowly identified certain units and/or titles who it believes would create a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public should they be allowed to strike.”
Those certain critical care nurses are in 12 units, according to the hospital: the medical and surgical COVID unit, bone marrow transplant unit, emergency department, labor and delivery unit, several ICU units, hematology oncology clinic, adolescent psychiatric comprehensive assessment and treatment unit and the center for women’s health.
UIH said it has had 20 bargaining sessions with INA since June 9, with additional sessions planned for Thursday and Friday, and “will do everything within our power to avert a strike and are prepared to continue bargaining for as long as it takes to reach a successful agreement with INA.”
The nurses union is pushing for stricter rules around how many patients a single nurse can care for, also known as nurse-to-patient ratios, in its next contract. It supports a state bill that would require hospitals to follow specific ratios, similar to those mandated by legislation in California.
UIH said in a statement it does not support those measures, as “one-size-fits-all staffing ratios are too rigid and remove flexibility.” The hospital favors a patient acuity-based model focused on “obtaining the right nurse at the right time for each patient.”
Staffing ratios ignore fair workload distribution among nurses on a shift-to-shift basis, would result in longer ER wait times, increase ambulance diversion hours, reduce patient services and increase operating costs, UIH said.