Workers at Loretto Hospital threaten to strike

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SEIU Healthcare Illinois has announced the workers it represents at The Loretto Hospital have voted overwhelming to authorize a strike that could take place as early as July 20.

Nearly 200 workers who serve as patient care techs, emergency room techs, and mental health, dietary and housekeeping staff are represented by SEIU. They make up about one-third of the Austin hospital’s workers.

At a press conference Thursday, Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Illinois, noted the union is made up largely of Black and brown workers.

“We’re here to remind Loretto that investing in Black lives and Black communities like Austin isn’t just about investing in medical supplies or in operating budgets,” Kelley said.

“It’s also investing in a workforce so that folks who provide care can also take care of themselves and their families. The workers here have been dedicated, and they deserve more.”

One of those workers – Wellington Thomas, an emergency room tech who has worked at Loretto for about 14 years and makes $19 an hour, according to the Sun-Times – said workers’ lives are increasingly at risk because of low wages and understaffing.

Thomas has to pick up extra shifts as an EMT to make ends meet.

“The human body can only take working so many hours without rest, can only take so much stress, can only take so much work,” Thomas said in a Chicago Tribune story.

 “We’ve been trying for months to explain to management how we reached our breaking point, and, unfortunately, management has not listened … We can’t afford to keep going as we have been going with skilled and certified medical workers making barely above the minimum wage,” Thomas said.

“If you don’t get paid enough for the work you do, you’ve got to work more than one job. If you’re always short staffed, you have to do the work of more than one person,” he said.

SEIU has accused Loretto of multiple unfair labor practices and failing to bargain in good faith on issues such as low wages and short staffing. Both sides have been bargaining since Dec. 31, when the original contract expired; an extension to that contract expired in March.

In an emailed statement, Catherine Murrell, a spokeswoman for SEIU, said, “workers are asking to be moved above $15, so that they are no longer right at or just above minimum wage.”

Mark Walker, the director of business development and community relations at Loretto, said in an emailed statement the hospital believes it has “offered favorable terms, especially in light of the current economic environment.”

Hospitals across the country have been struggling financially during the COVID-19 pandemic because of canceled elective surgeries, an important source of income for many hospitals, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A memo sent late last week to Loretto employees said that under the hospital’s current proposal, an SEIU employee currently “making $17 per hour could receive on average, up to a 19% increase or more over the next 4 years.”

For example, an employee currently earning $17 per hour would earn $20.26 per hour in 2024, according to the memo.

Walker noted that all employees currently make at least $14 per hour, and the hospital has offered $15 per hour as part of negotiations. On July 1, Chicago’s minimum wage increased to $14 per hour, and it’s due to jump to $15 per hour on July 1, 2021.

Walker said if the union strikes on July 20, the hospital will “do the best we can with the staff we have to keep our doors open. We don’t want to limit services.”

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