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CHICAGO — Following an 11-day strike that galvanized a Chicago West Side neighborhood, around 200 hospital workers treating uninsured and underinsured patients have won and ratified a new contract they believe will help them better serve the community.
Members of SEIU Healthcare, the mostly Black employees include nursing assistants, emergency room technicians, mental health workers and janitorial staff at Loretto Hospital, a 122-bed medical facility in the Austin neighborhood. Loretto is a privately run but publicly funded “safety-net” hospital, treating low-income patients regardless of their insurance, especially around issues such as addiction and mental health.
“We didn’t go on strike just for ourselves. We did this for the patients in the community as well,” said Carla Haskins, a patient care technician at Loretto. “We want to give them a hospital where they feel safe to come, where there’s a warming and welcoming environment.”
At Loretto, where many full-time workers make as little as $17 per hour despite being deemed “essential” during the pandemic, the job vacancy rate is at 35% and the employee turnover rate is 60%. Throughout contract negotiations, the union contended that low wages are the cause of short staffing and high turnover.
Inspection reports from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, obtained by WBEZ, indicate that in recent years, multiple patients have died or come dangerously close to dying at Loretto specifically because of short staffing.
The work stoppage began on July 31 and was suspended on August 10 after a deal was reached that includes across-the-board wage increases, starting rate increases, years-of-service increases and Juneteenth as a paid holiday. According to Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare vice president for health systems, workers will see an average raise of 14.5% over three years, with the minimum starting pay increasing to $19 an hour.
“With a 60% turnover rate, 40% percent stayed, and that 40% stood strong,” Haskins told In These Times. “Now we can get more competitive people into our building, instead of coming in and working one or two days and then leaving because of the pay.”
Loretto’s management has been embroiled in multiple scandals in recent years uncovered by reporters at Block Club Chicago. In early 2021 — when only seniors, frontline workers and healthcare staff were eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine — Loretto vaccinated personal friends of the hospital’s administrators who were ineligible, including owners of luxury boutiques in the ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood, county judges and 72 employees at Trump Tower.
Also, between 2018 and 2019, the hospital paid $4 million in contracts to three private companies all founded by a close friend of Dr. Anosh Ahmed, who was then Loretto’s COO and CFO (he has since resigned).
Amid these scandals, Loretto CEO George Miller abruptly left his position at the hospital in April 2022, though it was unclear whether he resigned or was forced out. Miller was making $500,000 at the time of his departure, while Ahmed was paid $556,141 the year he resigned. Other top administrators at the small nonprofit hospital each made between $247,000 and $350,000 last year.
At the start of the strike, Loretto management blamed the work stoppage on the union demanding “impractical first year wage increases.”
“The directors of these hospitals are telling me, ‘We need the money to pay the workers.’ Oh okay, fine,” State Rep. Marcus Evans, Jr., who chairs the Labor Committee in the Illinois House of Representatives, said at a strike rally. “After they’ve gotten all the state dollars to cover their salaries, they ain’t got no money for the workers.”
This May, the Illinois General Assembly allocated $10 million for Loretto Hospital “to address low wages and staff turnover.” In a letter sent during the strike, over 35 state lawmakers asked hospital management to “follow our clearly expressed directive for this funding — and invest the allocation of $10 million in your workers.”
“What our members were asking for wasn’t out of line at all. The fact that we had to go on strike for $19 an hour is hard,” Igoe told In These Times.
In a statement following the tentative agreement, Loretto management said: “We will continue to partner with SEIU, clergy, corporate and community stakeholders to secure the funding and resources needed for the hospital’s long-term growth. We welcome our team members back to work.”
Numerous elected officials joined the Loretto picket lines, including U.S. House Reps. Delia Ramirez and Danny Davis, State Rep. Lakesia Collins (a former SEIU Healthcare member and steward), State Sen. Willie Preston, Cook County Commissioner Anthony Quezada, Ald. Jessie Fuentes and many others.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who lives in the Austin neighborhood and is “no stranger to Loretto,” helped bring the two sides closer together in negotiations, Igoe said.
Labor allies from the Chicago Teachers Union, Chicago Federation of Labor, American Postal Union and Ironworkers also came out to support the strikers, and picketers reported that UPS Teamsters refused to cross the picket line. Loretto strikers also joined striking members of SAG-AFTRA, including actor Sean Astin, at a downtown solidarity rally at Daley Plaza on August 4.
In addition, Rev. Jesse Jackson and other faith leaders joined the workers for a vigil on the last day of the strike.
Igoe said the broad public support reflected the workers’ dedication to the community, noting how even from the picket line, Haskins and other striking employees helped save a patient who they saw walking onto a nearby expressway while having a “psychotic break.”
“My patients are my patients for life,” Haskins said. “My care and my concern for my patients and this community doesn’t stop when I punch out and go home.”
Regina Smith, a food and dietary service worker who was on strike, called Loretto “the small hospital with the big huge heart.”
“We thank God we’re able to come here and be of service on a daily basis — whether we’re tired, whether there’s a pandemic, whether it’s cold outside, whether we’re short staffed,” she said. “Short staff does not mean that we don’t care.”
This was at least the second strike at a safety-net hospital in the United States this year after 3,500 nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York struck for three days in January before securing a new contract through the New York State Nurses Association. The Loretto strike was different in that it involved low-wage support staff instead of registered nurses.
Igoe said SEIU Healthcare is currently in negotiations to win a new contract at Roseland Hospital, another safety net, on Chicago’s South Side. She added that the union is working with elected officials and community allies to secure more state funding for safety-net hospitals to ensure higher pay and lower turnover for improved care.
“Being on strike was a choice with integrity, discipline and humility. In order to move forward you have to make a stand,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we would sum it up as dignity, respect on our check.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.