UC Medical Center closes trauma facilities ahead of nurses’ strike

The University of Chicago Medical Center on Nov. 20. (Herald staff photo)

Staff writer

The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) pediatric and adult trauma centers have closed ahead of the nurses’ strike scheduled for Nov. 24. The administration took the step because of the difficulties in hiring replacement nurses to work and transferring patients to other at-capacity hospitals over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The pediatric trauma center closed on Monday; the hospital is transferring around 50 premature infants from its neonatal intensive care unit and 20 from its pediatric ICU. The adult trauma center closed on Wednesday.

“To not be able to provide those services for the Chicago community is just tragic, and it is unacceptable, quite honestly,” said UCMC President Sharon O’Keefe to reporters on Wednesday.

Walk-in services remain open at both trauma centers, but the hospital also is cancelling and rescheduling elective surgeries.

Roughly 2,200 nurses, represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) union, are scheduled to walk off the job for a day at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 26. Contract negotiations, which began last spring, have stalled over the issue of incentive pay, which the administration seeks to end for new hires while preserving it for current employees.

“It is not a market-competitive salary offering,” said O’Keefe. She characterized incentive pay, in which nurses receive higher wages for working extra shifts, as a tool to combat staffing shortages decades ago that is no longer used anywhere else in Chicago or, to the administration’s knowledge, anywhere else in the country.

The NNOC/NNU has said that incentive pay is a strong recruitment tool for hiring nurses at the UCMC, but O’Keefe said the hospital has no difficulty hiring.

“None whatsoever,” she said. “And the reasons we have no difficulty hiring staff is because they’re the highest paid in the City of Chicago working in the best-staffed institution, working on the most-complex patients and enjoying the most professional development that you could find anywhere in the city.”

O’Keefe called the upcoming strike “a blunt instrument” to inflict maximum harm. She said the closing of the trauma centers was a preemptive measure to protect patients before the staffing disruption. The UCMC is seeking to hire 900 replacement workers to fill in for the 2,200 unionized employees.

“What the NNU does is design the strikes at a time when it is most difficult to get replacement staff — so obviously a holiday, when people would rather be enjoying time with their families,” O’Keefe said. The nurses’ strike in September, the first in UCMC history, coincided with a dozen others at NNOC/NNU-organized hospitals nationwide.

“I think it’s important to note that University of Chicago Medicine is full every single day,” O’Keefe continued. “As we’re looking at trying to maintain full operations, what we have to do is look at staffing and our capacity. The difficult situation right now is every other hospital who can receive the intensity of patients that we have is also full. Trying to move patients to other hospitals is extremely difficult at this point in time, and, I would add, quite dangerous to patients.”

In a statement, the administration said that replacement workers have to be hired for five days, thus the strike will become a lockout lasting through 7 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1.

The NNOC/NNU did not respond to request for comment.