UCMC closes trauma center in preparation for nursing strike

November 22, 2019
by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter
Following news of an upcoming nurses strike, the University of Chicago Medical Center has closed its Level 1 trauma center.

The Hyde Park hospital shut down its pediatric Level 1 trauma program on Monday, Nov. 18, followed by its adult trauma program on Wednesday, Nov. 20. Its decision comes ahead of a walkout of approximately 2,200 nurses on Nov. 26, planned by the union, the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) over displeasure with proposals made by UCMC during ongoing negotiations between the two.

“We are acutely aware of the vital role we play in providing critical services to the South Side,” UCMC president Sharon O’Keefe said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it appears that the timing of this second strike is designed to inflict the maximum impact on the community and on our patients. While we’re aggressively recruiting about 900 replacement nurses, it’s exceptionally difficult to hire people who are willing to leave their families during Thanksgiving.”

The lack of available replacement nurses, according to O’Keefe, puts inpatients at a disadvantage, with other hospitals unable to accept transfers due to being at or near capacity. Adult and pediatric emergency rooms at UCMC, however, will remain open for walk-in patients.

In addition to the closing of its trauma programs, the hospital is transferring about 50 premature infants from its neonatal ICU, about 20 children from its pediatric ICU, and high-risk obstetrical patients. It is also canceling and rescheduling elective surgeries.

The strike is the second one to take place this year, with the first occurring in September. Approximately 2,200 nurses represented by the NNOC/NNU walked out of their jobs at three hospitals in Hyde Park to strike in a one-day demonstration. UCMC claims it was forced to offer replacement nurses five days of work in order to attract qualified and experienced personnel, resulting in the striking nurses losing five days of work rather than just one. The medical center believes that another strike will put its nurses out of work until Sunday, Dec. 1.

NNOC/NNU claims the decision to strike again is motivated by a number of issues under negotiation, including incentive pay, a practice in which nurses are paid a 20 percent increase in their base hour pay rate once they have worked 24 hours a week. The union seeks to expand this practice to new hires and additional nurses who do not currently receive incentive pay. UCMC has offered to continue incentive pay for current inpatient nurses, but cease offering it to new hires. “UCMC has offered in writing to raise its base salary increase proposal if the Union will compromise on issues such as this. The Union refuses,” said the hospital in a statement.

Another impasse in talks, according to the union, is a hospital proposal to eliminate the positions of patient care support nurses, who assist floor nurses with various tasks such as managing IVs and transporting patients for testing. UCMC denies this, claiming that the proposal calls for transferring PCSNs to positions that fulfill the union’s request for more direct bedside nursing support.

Elaine Mister, a nurse case manager at UCMC, says the transition would involve PCSNs becoming part of an IV team over a course of 18 months. She asserts that such a move would hurt patient care, and does not incorporate the experience and full skill sets that PCSNs have to offer.

"You are actually going to decrease your scope of practice from being able to offer assistance to a nurse with her patient for any type of screening, radiology, testing, MRs," she told HCB News. "If a patient comes in for a broken leg and now has had a stroke, that patient needs extra care and needs to be moved to an ICU bed. While we’re waiting for that patient to be sent to an ICU bed, that patient care support nurse could have taken over for that nurse. Now you’re just going to have her start IVs. We are more than that."

Other NNOC/NNU demands include increased pay and staffing.

NNOC/NNU nurses at UCMC made an average of $107,987 for three days of work per week in 2018, according to UCMC. It also says they earn on average about $30,000 more than the median salary of $77,710 for acute care hospital nurses in the Chicago area, with the average benefit package of full-time nurses worth $23,871 in 2018.

Bargaining sessions have been set for Thursday and Friday. The union and hospital also plan to meet once more on the day of the strike, as well as hold two additional sessions on December 11 and 18. Both are currently working alongside a federal mediator.