Ascension wins grievance over Joliet nurses staffing

Union negotiator says INA is ‘dumbfounded’ by decision

Union nurses on strike on Tuesday, Nov. 21, at Ascension Saint Joseph – Joliet Hospital, 333 Madison St., Joliet.

Ascension is pointing to an arbitrator’s favorable decision in a union grievance at its Joliet hospital, contending that the ruling shows it “is doing everything it can to improve staffing.”

Staffing at the hospital has been a key issue in a contract standoff with union nurses at Ascension Saint Joseph – Joliet hospital. The two sides had been negotiating since May without reaching agreement.

Ascension announced Wednesday that it will begin implementing elements of its final contract offer, including double-digit pay increases, after previously having declared an impasse in negotiations.

The grievance ruling was issued Thursday.

“Ascension Saint Joseph – Joliet is fully committed to supporting our nurses and all associates, and improving staffing at our critical community hospital,” Polly Davenport, market CEO for Ascension Illinois, said in a news release announcing the ruling. “Now this fact has been validated by a third-party labor arbitrator.”

Ascension quoted language in the ruling stating that the Joliet hospital “has gone to great lengths to attract and retain qualified nurses, and to sufficiently staff each unit.”

The Illinois Nurses Association, the union that represents nurses at the hospital, criticized the ruling.

Ascension Saint Joseph-Joliet on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.

“We’re dumbfounded that the guy could come to that conclusion,” said John Fitzgerald, chief negotiator for the INA.

Measures taken by the hospital to recruit nurses and staff units, the arbitrator said, have included signing bonuses to recruit nurses, financial incentives to encourage nurses to work extra shifts, hiring agency nurses, and the use of float nurses to fill open shifts.

“Nothing in the record suggests that the hospital has failed to use any reasonable and available method to fill out its unit staffing,” the arbitrator said in the ruling.

“We appreciate the arbitrator’s acknowledgement of our ongoing efforts to ensure the health and safety of our associates and patients through our safe staffing protocols,” Davenport said in the release.

Davenport also said Ascension “will continue to work through all legal barriers INA presents that try to keep us from recognizing our nurses with competitive wages, and successfully recruiting and hiring staff to support our care teams.”

Sarah Hurd, an organizer with Illinois Nurses Association, holds a megaphone while marching with union nurses during their strike on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, outside Ascension Saint Joseph – Joliet.

Ascension has said pay increases in its final contract proposal are necessary to recruit and keep nurses at the hospital. They include an almost 19% increase in the first year for entry-level nurses and an almost 17% increase for middle-tier nurses. Nurses with 30-plus years of experience get a 2% hike.

The Ascension statement on the arbitrator’s decision said it showed the hospital “is doing everything it can to improve staffing.”

The INA contends that Ascension’s final offer leaves the Joliet hospital behind what other hospitals pay nurses and does not address concerns about working conditions.

In its own statement, the INA said the “arbitrator’s decision runs contrary to the language in the contract and the plain language of Illinois law. The refusal by those in authority to hold corporations like Ascension responsible is endangering patients and undermining nurses’ ability to do their jobs. Many are abandoning the profession as a result.”