Joliet nurses rally with contract deadline near

Contract expires July 19, nurses went on strike three years ago

Nurses decorate their vehicles before driving around St. Joseph Hospital to bring awareness regarding ongoing negotiations at in Joliet on Tuesday, July 11th, 2023.

Nurses in about 40 vehicles cruised around Ascension Saint Joseph-Joliet hospital for more than a half-hour Tuesday in a rally aimed at drawing attention to what they say are severe staffing shortages and unsafe conditions as a union contract deadline draws near.

The current contract, which was reached after a nurses’ strike three years ago, expires on July 19. The next negotiations are not scheduled until the day before the contract expires. Nurses already have posted notice that they plan to picket on July 20.

“I’ve been to three negotiations, and they’re very slow moving,” nurse Mary Sue Bulger said. “We’re fighting for more pay to get more nurses into the building.”

The number of staff nurses at the hospital has declined from 800 five years ago to 530 today, according to the Illinois Nurses Association, the union that represents nurses at the Joliet hospital.

The union contends the decline in staff has created unsafe conditions and wants Ascension to commit to hiring 350 nurses on a permanent basis.

Debra Jacksa, a nurse, prepares for a rally to bring awareness regarding ongoing negotiations at St. Joseph Hospital in Joliet on Tuesday, July 11th, 2023.

The car rally was aimed at gaining notice from Ascension management and also from the community. Nurses posted placards calling for support while driving side-by-side with other traffic on Glenwood Avenue and the other streets that border the hospital.

“We’re trying to draw community attention to the crisis at the hospital,” nurse Beth Corsetti said, making a case that a dwindling staff leads to longer hours for nurses and threatens patient care.

“I worked 13 hours yesterday, and I didn’t get a break,” Corsetti said.

An Ascension spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on staffing and contract negotiations.

Management in the past has said nurse recruitment is a national issue, and the Joliet medical center faces issues similar to those at other hospitals.

Nurses contend that the situation at the Joliet hospital is uniquely troublesome and is not being addressed by management proposals in the contract talks.

Nurses drive around St. Joseph Hospital during a rally to bring awareness regarding ongoing negotiations at in Joliet on Tuesday July 11th, 2023.

One proposal is to cap the wage scale at 21 years of service, which would mean no pay raises for nurses once they reach that mark. The current pay scale is capped at 30 years. About 25% of the nursing staff has been at the hospital for at least 21 years, according to the union.

“I’m not happy about it at all,” said Robyn Richards, a 21-year nurse at the hospital with a daughter who recently graduated from nursing school and now is working as a nurse. “I feel like I have to do this not only for myself but for her and the younger generation.”

Contract talks had been scheduled for Tuesday but were canceled by Ascension, said John Fitzgerald, chief negotiator for the union.

Fitzgerald said he hopes to see more urgency the next time the two sides meet the day before the contract expires.

“I’m hopeful we can get out of there with a deal,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m hopeful that they’re willing to work all day and all night.”

Fitzgerald said the union is serious about its proposal for the hiring of 350 new nurses and that something has to be done about the decline in staffing.

“We had a new hire orientation today,” he said. “There was one nurse in there. That’s what they’re doing.”