Nurses were joined by Joliet Mayor Terry D’Arcy and the president of the Michigan Nurses Association at a rally where they voiced their contract demands in negotiations that are not scheduled to resume until Sept. 8.
Union officials accused Ascension of union-busting tactics, pointing to a lockout imposed by the company that will keep nurses out of the hospital until Saturday and beyond the planned two-day strike.
Ascension issued a statement referring to “this disheartening strike” and said it would “fulfill our commitment to uninterrupted quality care for our patients” with staffing agency nurses.
Picketing nurses voiced their determination to improve wages and staffing at the Joliet hospital.
“I plan to stay strong until we start negotiating again,” Debra Jacksa, a nurse at the hospital for 16 years, said as she carried a sign alongside Madison Street outside a hospital entrance.
Jacksa said the nurses want better working conditions, staffing and pay – none of which she said Ascension was addressing at contract negotiations last held Aug. 1.
The nurses current contract, which was reached after a strike in 2020, expired July 19.
D’Arcy joined nurses in criticizing Ascension’s approach to contract talks.
The mayor said Ascension “has walked away from negotiations” and imposed a lockout that “will create turnover and unsafe conditions for the very patients they are responsible for serving.”
The union on Aug. 11 gave its notice of intent to conduct a two-day strike to start Tuesday. Ascension, in turn, canceled the one contract negotiation session scheduled to occur before the strike date. Ascension also announced that all union nurses would be locked out until Saturday because its arrangement for substitute nurses called for them to be used for at least four days.
Those substitute nurses are being paid a minimum of $7,000 for four days of work, nurse Cathy Coffey said, pointing to a text notice she got from Prolink Staffing, the agency supplying substitute nurses to the Joliet hospital.
“We’re not even asking for that,” Coffey said. “We’re asking for safe staffing and equipment that works.”
Nurses said they are increasingly working with faulty equipment as basic as digital thermometers.
“You have to go through five or six to find one that actually works,” nurse Beth Corsetti said. “The patients see it.”
Nurses contend that Ascension has allowed staffing to fall below safe levels for patients. The number of staff nurses at the Joliet hospital has declined by about 300 over the past five years to 520 today.
“This hospital has been actively disinvesting in this community,” said Julia Bartmes, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association.
INA, the union that represents Joliet nurses, conducted a survey of nurses who left the Joliet hospital in the past year and found that, on average, their pay increased by 30% after moving to another job, said John Fitzgerald, chief negotiator for the union.
The median wage at the Joliet hospital is $40 an hour, he said.
Jamie Brown, president of the Michigan Nurses Association, said nurses at Ascension hospitals in her state face the same staffing issues as those at the Joliet hospital.
“We are standing with you in solidarity to show that Ascension nurses stand together wherever they are,” Brown said.
There are no nursing strikes at Ascension hospitals in Michigan, Brown said later. But she pointed to two Ascension hospitals in Wichita, Kansas, and one in Austin, Texas, where short-term strikes similar to that in Joliet have occurred recently.