Short staffing, security problems force Univ. of Chicago nurses onto info picket line
Nurses and staff who are part of the NNU demonstrate outside the University of Chicago Medical Center, July 21, 2019. | NNU via Facebook

CHICAGO (PAI)—Fed up with short staffing, security concerns, and lack of progress on talks for a new contract, nurses at the sprawling and prestigious University of Chicago Medical Center complex walked an informational picket line on July 22.

Their aim: To tell patients and the public about staff and equipment shortages and to push hospital management back to the bargaining table.

National Nurses United represents the 2,300 RNs at the center, which includes Billings Hospital, the University of Chicago Hospital, and several other institutions. Hundreds of nurses and their allies marched on the picket line outside the complex’s main entrance.

Conditions inside are bad enough that NNU filed a formal complaint with state health and occupational safety officials earlier this year.

“We are committed to providing our patients with the very best care possible on all shifts,” Johnny Webb, RN, told the union before the picketing began. “But it is simply impossible to provide the care we want to provide when we are caring for too many sick patients, when we are forced to leave our patients to search for IV pumps and when we are not sure if our patients or our colleagues are at risk of violence.”

The nurses have had to file more than 1,500 reports in the last two and a half years, telling management how short-staffing could lead to bad outcomes for their patients. The problems include delays in chemotherapy and lack of staffers to monitor patients in intensive care units.

To help remedy the staffing shortages, NNU and the nurses are demanding specific nurse-patient ratios, along the lines of those now written into law in California and several other states, be written into any upcoming contract between the hospitals and NNU.

The hospitals reject that demand. A spokeswoman told CBS News in Chicago that their ERs have 1.67 patients per nurse, while the California standard is 2-to-1. NNU campaigned for years to get the standards set into law there.

“One RN in ambulatory cardiology cut short her vacation short because her unit had only two nurses instead of the necessary four, and she feared that if nurses were unable to respond to patients within 24 hours, they would wind up in the emergency room or die at home,” NNU said before the informational picketing.

The short-staffing also leaves RNs open to patient violence—a common problem nationwide. The union is pushing national legislation to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write a rule ordering health care institutions to create, institute and enforce anti-violence programs.

Two-thirds of UCMC nurses surveyed told the union a patient or visitor threatened them. One-third said they were kicked, and 28% said they were targets—and sometimes hit by—patient- or visitor-thrown objects, including chairs and lamps.

“We have patients and family members who are trying to manage incredible stress, or suffering a mental health crisis, or they simply don’t understand why it is taking so long for us to answer the call buttons,” Brigitt Manson-McToy, RN, told NNU.

“All these factors, coupled with short staffing contribute to the potential for violence on the units. RNs bargained new language intended to address these issues in the previous contract, but management has failed to implement the language. Patients need a safe place to heal and nurses deserve a safe place to work.”

“We do have placards on the walls, and on the doors and windows, that says violence will not be tolerated. But what’s most important is nurses don’t really have the tools if something does happen. What do we go to? Do we need to call just the manager? You know, we need more security presence,” Manson-McToy told CBS.

The hospital management responded by saying their staffing ratios met or exceeded state standards, that it pays its nurses more than the city average already and that the informational picketing is “posturing” and “a common tactic for unions and is part of NNU’s playbook to gain attention across the country.”

It also said collective bargaining would solve the issues raised. The old NNU pact expired in April.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.