The workers hail from Chicago-area hospitals, including Northwestern Memorial, Roseland, Mount Sinai, St. Bernard, Loretto and others. Workers are represented by Service Employee International Union Healthcare Illinois, which encompasses 90,000 hospital, nursing home, home care and child care workers.
"The labor shortages are real," said SEIU Illinois President Greg Kelley in an interview with Crain's. "Our argument is that the labor shortages are directly tied to underpayment."
Sinai Chicago, Chicago's largest safety-net hospital and operator of Mount Sinai in Douglas Park, didn't answer specific questions about worker pay or how many open roles it currently has. But in a statement, spokesman Dan Regan said: "Like so many health and hospital systems nationwide, we are facing workforce challenges. This is not unique to Sinai Chicago. However, we can assure our patients and community that we are safely staffed to provide quality and safe care every day."
Northwestern Memorial employs about 1,300 people covered by a collective bargaining agreement, said spokesman Chris King in a statement to Crain's.
"We would welcome the SEIU's support to help us identify candidates for the 190 positions that are currently open," he said. "Finding qualified employees today is an issue for every industry and healthcare is not immune. We are actively working to implement strategies to support our employees and redesign how work is done."
Loretto declined to comment. St. Bernard and Roseland hospitals did not respond to requests for comment.
SEIU's actions come just months after the union's members rallied at the headquarters of the Joint Commission on Accreditation for Hospital Organizations to bring attention to understaffing in healthcare settings and ask for stricter staffing requirement rules.
The industrywide labor crisis in healthcare was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, when front-line healthcare workers, from service workers to physicians to nurses and even pharmacists, were pushed to the limit under enormous stress and workloads. As a result, some workers have left healthcare for good.
Data shows that employment numbers at hospitals and nursing facilities throughout the state have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. The sectors are still missing thousands of workers.
The number of Illinois hospital workers dropped about 5% from 241,500 in March 2020 to a low of 229,600 workers that May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then, the sector has slowly regained some jobs, but as of August 2022, Illinois hospitals only recorded 234,600 workers, still down 3% from before the pandemic.
The worker shortage hit the nursing and residential care industry even harder, where the number of workers dropped 12% from 140,500 in March 2020 to 123,400 in August 2022.
"The great resignation is real," Kelley said. "People have decided that they're not going to risk their lives and safety for minimum wage work that's really, really hard."
The labor shortage is also affecting Cook County Health, which operates John H. Stroger Jr. and Provident hospitals. CCH is looking at about 3,000 vacancies for this year and next, Cook County budget director Annette Guzman said in an editorial board meeting with Crain's on Thursday.
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"The health system makes up the biggest proportion of vacancies in the county across the board," Guzman said.
To fill gaps, CCH has utilized external staffing agencies.
Registered nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center protested last month to highlight low staffing levels at their hospital. According to National Nurses Organizing Committee, which represents 2,700 registered nurses at UChicago Medicine, more than 580 nurses have left the hospital since September 2021. At points during the last year, there were more than 200 nursing vacancies at UChicago Medicine, NNOC said.
UChicago Medicine leadership responded by saying it has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the region. "Regrettably, (the) protest is not about the facts or anything the University of Chicago Medical Center has or has not done," the hospital said in a statement. "Instead, it is part of a nationally directed publicity effort in which (NNOC) is protesting across the country to support a self-serving agenda, even when the facts don't support it."
SEIU argues short staffing can lead to worker burnout and injury. The union points to research indicating that more staff leads to better patient outcomes and that understaffing increases patients' risk of developing infections in hospital settings.
Aside from nurses, many of the workers SEIU represents, and those speaking out at Thursday's event, include certified nursing assistants and housekeeping workers, who serve critical roles in hospitals.
"Without them, you won't have clean beds, you won't have clean instruments, you won't be able to serve food to patients," Kelley said. "We've been screaming about these kinds of things for years, but COVID most certainly made things much worse."
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business.