University of Chicago Medical Center nurse Marie LaFondant speaks at a National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United protest at Stroger Hospital, 1901 W. Harrison St., Jan. 13

Unionized nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center say insufficient staffing is endangering patient health and pushing many of their colleagues away from their jobs. The union, National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), is urging the state legislature to pass a bill that would legally mandate patient-to-staff ratios in Illinois.

"University of Chicago hospitals are at a breaking point, both in Hyde Park and at Ingalls Memorial in Harvey," said Marie LaFontant, a 37-year nurse who has worked in intensive care units for more than two decades. "The number of COVID patients in both locations are higher than at any point in the pandemic, almost double last year's inpatient numbers."

Nurses and other health care workers like doctors and support staff, she said, are getting infected at the highest rates since the pandemic began. She said nurses are exhausted from working with insufficient staff and burned out from long shifts and increased demand to do overtime.

"Every day, nurses get texts from management asking if they can pick up extra shifts, working overtime," she said. Both nurses said patients are waiting hours for care in UChicago Medicine's emergency departments. LaFontant said some ICU nurses are being asked to take up to three patients at a time, she said, and she said some of the patients need their own full-time nurse.

LaFontant said the hospital industry created this crisis from having worked "at a minimum" when the pandemic began.

By October, 18% of American health care workers had quit their jobs since the pandemic began, and another 12% had been laid off, per a Morning Consult study. Thirty-one percent of the remainders said they were considering leaving their jobs, and 79% said the worker shortage was affecting both them and their workplaces. A September study by the Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that 66% of acute and critical care nurses were thinking about quitting nursing.

"We are overworked, understaffed and being asked to cover for all the support staff who are also getting infected and calling off," LaFontant said. "Nurses are leaving the profession due to the moral distress of having to work in conditions that do not allow us to care for our patients."

"I'm only one person. I can only take care of so many patients. I'm supposed to care for two patients, and I can juggle two patients at the same time. If you give me three, that becomes a problem," she said. "I'm going to be taking care of the one who is most sick. That's two of them who are going to be getting barely minimal care, and that's a risk. And that's exactly what we don't want to do. We don't want to ignore our patients. We want to provide care efficiently. And we want the tools and the people to do it."

Scott Mechanic, an emergency room nurse at UCMC, said conditions there are untenable.

"Our waiting room is frequently filled standing room-only. We have patients whom we know have COVID sitting next to at-risk immunocompromised patients for hours after hours," he said. "Patients have died in our emergency room after conditions have deteriorated after long waits in our ER."

He said his colleagues' anxiety is out of control — a warning sign for a typically even-keeled profession — and that their working conditions are terrible. Beyond not having adequate lunch breaks, scores of UCMC nurses are getting sick, he said. And he also said that scores are quitting their jobs as bedside nurses.

"Every day I get emails, texts, phone calls offering me $5,000 or more a week to work as a travel nurse. It's only my connection to my patients and my coworkers that keeps me at my current job — for now," Mechanic said.

NNOC/NNU officials said their members' morale drops when travel nurses come on board, since they make more money while their members earn under their union contract.

"People have left, it's true, but what we need from our employers is to hire permanent staff. We have a very good union contract and numbers that were supposed to be actually implemented for hiring, because we need permanent staff," said Elizabeth Lalasz, a Stroger Hospital nurse and union steward.

"Think about it: You want travelers to be in? We need their help, but you want permanent staff who know the institutions, who know the patient populations and who know how to work with each other. And it's not just about nurses working with each other. It's about us working with our doctors, our respiratory therapists, all our ancillary staff — that's really important."

In addition to the personal actions that can drive COVID-19 infection rates down — mask-wearing, staying home when sick, getting vaccinated — LaFontant demanded elected officials do all they can to clinically staff underserved communities with lower-than-average vaccination rates and pass the Safe Patient Limits Act, which would enforce patient-to-staff ratios across Illinois, praising benefits similar legislation has brought to California.

Northwest suburban Rep. Fred Crespo (D-44th) introduced that legislation in February 2021; it has no cosponsors in the state House or Senate and has gone nowhere in the General Assembly.

"We want our ratios," Lalasz said, "but we want our hospitals to hire permanent staff. It's a crisis mode. They're just throwing money to get staff in, but we need people to stabilize the system. And that's why we feel, I would say, it's on the verge of a collapse."

"You are going to have to drive people back in. And the better that you're actually in — a union facility? There's benefits. People want to join unions. That hasn't changed."

In a statement to the Herald, University of Chicago Medical Center President Tom Jackiewicz said: "The record number of COVID-19 cases and breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated healthcare workers has been especially difficult on hospitals and health systems across the country, including ours.

"That means many individuals at our organization are working hard to ensure we can continue to serve our communities and meet the needs of patients who need our care — be it for a COVID-19 infection, a stroke or heart condition, a traumatic injury, a new organ or cancer treatment. The efforts of every single employee, including our nurses, are nothing short of heroic." 

Jackiewicz said that the medical center has added 27 state-provided healthcare workers that will help fill shortages in clinical units over the next six weeks and temporarily redeployed staff to critical areas of the healthcare system. UCMC has also added employees from staffing agencies and is offering sign-on bonuses and on-the-spot positions to potential employees. 

"We recognize the incredible pressures our frontline staff have faced throughout this pandemic and the unique challenges they face now," he wrote. "We remain especially grateful for their above-and-beyond efforts and will continue to work to find ways to support them.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Tom Jackiewicz. 

(1) comment


What a sad situation.

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