Hospitals in Illinois and across the country are short-staffed, according to the union representing 90,000 health care support staff in four states.
About 50 members from Service Employees Union International Health Care Illinois on Tuesday rallied outside the Oakbrook Terrace-based nonprofit that accredits hospitals and other health care institutions, asking it to help change how hospitals address staffing.
The union wants the Joint Commission to include staffing levels in its hospital reviews.
“No safe staffing, no seal of approval,” chanted the union members.
In a prepared statement following the rally, the Joint Commission’s president, Jonathan B. Perlin, said staffing is critical and it is willing to work with groups to address that. However, “a one-size-fits-all or immediate solution” is not available, Perlin said, “especially in the context of ensuring access to patients in need with an ongoing workforce shortage.”
“Healthcare workers are not immune to the stresses, physical exhaustion and moral injury that have been amplified in the cruel wake of COVID-19,” Perlin said in the statement. “The events of the past two years have brought critical attention to the need for more trained healthcare workers to meet patient demand and to reduce turnover. We appreciate that without a healthy and safe workforce, we cannot have the safest and most compassionate care.”
Codifying minimum or guaranteed staffing levels for health care can come from the joint commissions, but may also need legislative changes, said Gregory Kelley, president of the Service Employees Union International Health Care Illinois.
Shortages predate the COVID-19 virus, but the pandemic put a spotlight on the need for additional workers in health care settings to protect both the workers and patients, Kelley said.
“We are calling on the Joint Commission to stop accrediting hospitals who short staff because the evidence is overwhelming,” Kelley said.
“When safe staffing levels dip below a certain level, then patients are more likely to experience negative outcomes, including hospital acquired infections and, unfortunately, even death,” he said.
SEIU picked Tuesday for the rally as hospital inspectors were training at the site, organizers said.
The SEIU Health Care membership is made up of hospital support staff, including certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, food service and dietary workers.
Shortages affect service workers across hospitals and regardless the types of patients seen, said Anne Igoe, SEIU vice president for hospitals.
“All of them have very high vacancy rates” for service and support staff, Igoe said.
During the pandemic, one in five health care workers left the field, she said. While SEIU Health Care does not track deaths of its members from COVID-19, it tracked infection rates. In December, as the omicron variant spread, members reported having entire floors of staff out.
Many of their members are in low-paying jobs, which were considered essential throughout the pandemic. Pay for these positions has not kept up with inflation, nor attracted new employees, Igoe said.
In Chicago, the minimum wage for hospital workers is $15.40 an hour, Igoe said. That is set by the city’s minimum wage ordinance. In the suburbs, pay can range from $18 to $19 per hour, higher than the state’s mandated $12 per hour.
At the same time, hospitals are seeing shortages of nursing and other staff. Many hospitals rely on traveling nurses and staffing agencies. These short-term contract employees may be paid $30 to $60 per hour, Igoe said.