Nurses at Rush University Medical Center are working to unionize as the COVID-19 crisis raises new safety and health concerns.
Unions representing front-line medical staffers at other institutions have advocated on behalf of their members during the pandemic, calling attention to shortages of personal protective equipment and staffing ratios they say endanger both workers and patients. In some cases, they've won paid sick leave and higher wages.
As a result, interest in organizing has increased among nonunion workers in the Chicago area—including some nurses at Near West Side Rush, Crain’s has learned.
"Rush leaders have been working closely with our nurses to understand and address any concerns," spokesman Tobin Klinger said in an email. "It’s clear from these conversations that the number of staff interested in exploring union membership is minimal."
Rush nurses are fighting for more even nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and adequate personal protective equipment, among other things, sources close to the situation said, adding that the effort is supported by National Nurses United. Rush disputes the nurses' issues.
“We did retain outside assistance to help with the process of listening and taking action to do whatever we can to improve the workplace,” Rush said in an emailed statement. “Listening to our nurses is essential to our ability to continue to provide excellent nursing care, which includes an unimpeded supply of PPE, appropriate staffing and nurses at every level of the organization having a voice in their nursing practice or collaboration between nurses and leaders.”
A spokeswoman for the union, which has 155,000 members nationwide, declined to comment but said in an emailed statement, “If nurses at Rush, and other Chicago-area hospitals, are interested in organizing a union and joining our national nurses movement, we are happy to assist them in joining us and encourage them to contact us.”
Meanwhile, sources said the hospital has hired consultants to help deter organizing efforts.
In some cases, employers spend millions of dollars to fend off organizing efforts—this includes the cost of meeting worker demands around hazard pay, for example, Robert Bruno, director of the labor studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Crain’s earlier this year.
Additional staffing costs and expenses related to renegotiating union contracts also can put financial pressure on hospitals.
The organizing push comes as Rush and other health systems navigate financial challenges brought on by COVID-19, including higher operating costs and lower revenues from postponing nonemergency procedures.
“We pride ourselves on our nurses and strive to provide them with the best workplace environment to do their essential, life-saving work,” Rush said, noting that it has taken other steps to support staff during the pandemic, including additional compensation for front-line workers and day care services.
While advocates say unions increase worker satisfaction, improve productivity and reduce turnover, there are few recent studies on the impact of unions on healthcare quality.