Sargent King

Lea Sargent King, a telemetry staff nurse and chair of the registered nurse professional practice committee at the University of Chicago Medical Center, speaks at a union protest in front of the hospital, Sept. 15

University of Chicago Medical Center nurses protested working conditions and aired concerns about patient safety due to understaffing outside the hospital early morning on Thursday, Sept. 15. 

A statement from the nurses union, the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), said more than 580 nurses have left the UCMC in the past year, including more than 350 since January, and that there have been more than 200 vacancies during some months of that timeframe. The union said new nurses have been hired, but because they are undergoing orientation, they are not yet working as staff nurses. 

This understaffing, the nurses at the rally said, has at times caused delays in care, late medication delivery, increases in fall risks and not-readily-available equipment. They said shifts are understaffed and that staffing shortages have caused their requests for time off to be denied, including on holidays.

"Now that we're coming out of the pandemic, we're expecting the hospitals to do a little more, now that everybody's coming up for air. And it's not much to ask for our nurses and for the safety of our patients," said nurse Lea Sargent King.

"As they hire nurses, we lose nurses. And we can never come up to a positive. We can never get into the black," Sargent King said in an interview. 

Of particular note, she said, is a lack of adequate nurses to provide care to "high-acuity" patients, like those in trauma care, the intensive-care unit or people at the end stage of heart or renal disease. Short-staffing is also precluding charge nurses, who oversee a department of nurses, from being assigned to larger units. King said they are meant to be a resource for everyone and especially help newer nurses.

"Although we fought for that contract provision, we're not realizing that benefit, because there's not enough nurses to do it," she said.

King acknowledged that the hospital has made "substantial efforts" to hire nurses, but she said there is an issue with retention. She said the union's professional practice committee is trying to introduce alternative strategies to retain nurses, through things like only calling in nurses to work in their own units and not assigning them shifts on other floors. (King noted nurses units' strong camaraderie.)

In a statement, a UCMC spokesperson said the hospital is a leader in pay, benefits and nursing recruitment. They said the vacancy rate is 4.7% in the union bargaining unit while the national nursing vacancy rate is 17% and pointed to 21 consecutive "A" grades in patient safety from Leapfrog Group.

Yet, workers at the rally alleged, shifts remain understaffed, and when a nurse is out sick or cannot come in, it creates a crisis. “Almost every day nurses are getting texts from managers saying they are ‘desperate’ and begging them to come in on their day off,” the union wrote in a statement. 

For years hospitals across the U.S. have struggled with understaffing, and the issue has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as demand for health-care services increased. 

Thursday’s protest at UCMC comes on the heels of a wave of pandemic-spurred nurses strikes across the U.S.; just three days ago, the largest private-sector nursing strike in U.S. history began in Minnesota when more than 15,000 nurses walked off the job in protest of understaffing and overwork.

The union's UCMC contract is up in November 2023. NNOC/NNU is one of the largest nurses unions in the country, and represents about 2,700 registered nurses at UCMC.

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