Newswise — The University of Chicago Medical Center has been forced to close its Level 1 trauma center for adult and pediatric patients ahead of the holiday strike called by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU).

The Hyde Park medical center closed its pediatric Level 1 trauma program Nov. 18 and shut its adult trauma program Nov. 20. Both the adult and pediatric emergency rooms remain open to walk-in patients.

It’s the second time in two months that NNOC/NNU’s nursing strike has shut down one of Chicago’s busiest trauma programs. Trauma services were unavailable ahead of and during September’s five-day strike, which caused ambulances to take dozens of trauma patients and hundreds of emergency room patients to other facilities. That included a Chicago Police Officer who was shot Sept. 21 in nearby West Englewood, who instead was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. He survived.

“We are acutely aware of the vital role we play in providing critical services to the South Side,” said UCMC President Sharon O’Keefe. “Unfortunately, it appears that the timing of this second strike is designed to inflict the maximum impact on the community and on our patients. While we’re aggressively recruiting about 900 replacement nurses, it’s exceptionally difficult to hire people who are willing to leave their families during Thanksgiving. At the same time, other hospitals in the city are already at or near capacity, which means they will not be able accept transfers of current inpatients if that need arises when nurses walk out. The combination of the two led us to take the step of temporarily closing our trauma program ahead of the strike.”

About 2,200 NNOC/NNU-represented nurses at UCMC are set to go on strike at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26. As in September, the hospital was required to offer replacement nurses five days of work to best recruit qualified and experienced replacement nurses, which means UCMC nurses will not return until 7 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1.

UCMC continues to monitor its capacity and commitments from its nursing agencies. It is currently transferring about 50 premature infants in its neonatal ICU (NICU) and about 20 children in its pediatric ICU (PICU) along with high-risk obstetrical patients in advance of Tuesday’s strike. It is also taking steps to cancel and reschedule elective surgeries.

“We had hoped to operate without interruption,” O’Keefe said. “However, much like we were forced to during September’s multi-state strike, we now need to take a series of steps to decrease the number of patients in our care so we can focus on providing those who remain here with the safest medical care possible with our current staffing levels.”

UCMC nurses represented by the NNU are among the highest paid in Chicago and Illinois, earning an average of $107,987 for three days of work per week in 2018. UCMC nurses earn on average about $30,000 more than the median salary of $77,710 for acute care hospital nurses in the Chicago area. And some of the medical center’s top nursing earners were paid more than $200,000 in 2018.  Meanwhile, the average benefit package for full-time UCMC nurses in 2018 was worth $23,871 with retirement.

NNOC/NNU has pressed for increased pay and staffing. Existing nurse staffing levels at UCMC are the best in the state and city as validated by staffing data and third-party evaluation. The Medical Center is one of the safest in the nation as measured by the watchdog Leapfrog Group which has given UCMC 16 consecutive grades of “A” for patient safety, placing it in the top 36 safest hospitals in the country.

The crucial issue over which the Union is striking is its demand to expand incentive pay, an antiquated pay practice that hospitals implemented in the 1980s during a national nursing shortage. Under this practice, which virtually all hospitals have long since eliminated, UCMC still pays inpatient nurses “incentive pay” – which pays them  a 20% increase in their base hourly pay rate once they have worked 24 hours in a week. This incentive rate is in addition to daily and weekly overtime at time and a half. In its latest proposal, UCMC has offered to continue incentive pay for current inpatient nurses who receive it, but wants to end the practice for new hires.

The Union not only proposes to maintain this practice, but to expand it to new hires and hundreds of additional nurses who do not receive incentive pay now. Incentive pay is blocking progress on other issues, too. UCMC has offered in writing to raise its base salary increase proposal if the Union will compromise on issues such as this.  The Union refuses.

Both sides have been meeting with a federal mediator, and bargaining sessions are set for Thursday and Friday.