With a strike looming, Chicago's Cook County Health postpones elective procedures

Protest signs
Thousands of nurses and other workers employed by Chicago’s Cook County Health are set to walk off the job after months of stalled contract negotiations and concerns of unsafe staffing. The state's labor relations board has already ordered some to remain at their posts in the interest of public safety. (Getty/ONYXprj)

Thousands of nurses and other workers at Chicago’s Cook County Health are set to strike on or after June 24, forcing the city’s public health system to hire temporary nurses and reschedule elective surgeries, non-urgent procedures and other appointments.

The groups are represented by National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), a National Nurses United affiliate, and SEIU Local 73, which said in their strike announcements that the disputes are tied to monthslong contract negotiations.

NNOC, which said it represents 1,250 nurses working for the system, pointed to “hospital management’s failure to address the persistent lack of nursing staff throughout the Cook County Health System” as their primary complaint.

“Nurses are being pushed to a breaking point” Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room registered nurse at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County Health, said in a statement. “We do not want to strike, we want to be at the bedside, but it is time for Cook County to create a plan to hire nurses to care for our community.”

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SEIU Local 73 has roughly 2,500 members ready to strike this week, more than 1,000 of whom are employed by Cook County Health System in various healthcare, technical and maintenance positions. Their demands range from annual pay increases to lower cost healthcare benefits.

The nurses are planning to strike for a single day on June 24, whereas SEIU Local 73’s demonstration is set to begin June 25 and last indefinitely. The parties could still reach an agreement prior to Thursday to avoid the walk-off.

However, it’s unlikely that all of the labor groups’ members will be permitted to strike. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Illinois Labor Relations Board ordered 380 nurses and a roughly equal number of other workers to continue working due to “a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public” should they walk off of the job.

A representative of NNOC told the Chicago Tribune that the group intended to appeal the board’s decision.

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Cook County Health, which runs Stroger Hospital and Provident Hospital of Cook County along with pharmacies, outpatient health centers and public health departments, said it has already made arrangements to weather Thursday’s nursing strike.

“We will augment our staffing with skilled agency nurses in priority areas, including our trauma and emergency departments, operating rooms and inpatient units,” a representative told Fierce Healthcare in an email statement. “Some elective and non-urgent procedures or appointments have been rescheduled while some scheduled appointments will be accommodated via telehealth.”

The Cook County Health nurses’ demands echo those of other demonstrators who have called for more consistent staffing and safety measures over the past several months. These recently included a protest by Southern California-based healthcare workers employed at three Tenet-owned hospitals and a two-day strike of Barton Memorial Hospital nurses.

As recently as this week, National Nurses United backed a five-hospital demonstration in which nurses sought to call attention to unsafe staffing and poor retention at HCA-owned facilities.