CHICAGO — “Respect us, pay us, staff us!” chanted hospital workers, members of Service Employees International Union, and their supporters outside Northwestern hospital here March 31. They were there to build support during their ongoing contract negotiations with the hospital. They are emergency room technicians, cooks, pharmacy technicians, groundskeepers, housekeeping workers and many others essential to the hospital’s functioning.
The current contract ended Jan. 28 and the union is fighting for an agreement raising the minimum pay from $15.80 per hour to $25, for safer staffing levels and an increase in overtime premiums. The hospital countered, offering just $1.20 per hour for the lowest paid workers and 44 cents for the technicians. They refused to discuss minimum staffing levels or overtime pay.
Carson Schmittle, an emergency room technician and one of the speakers at the rally, told the crowd about the dangerous conditions patients face because of the staffing levels. “The ratio of techs to patients should ideally be one tech to 10 patients or less,” he said. But there have been days where he has been the only worker, serving up to 100 patients. “We continue to be expected to do more with less. This results in unstable patients often waiting for hours to even have their vitals checked. It weighs heavily on us.”
Twenty-six of 49 emergency room technicians left Northwestern in the last year. This meant Schmittle was tasked with training new hires before he felt comfortable safely doing the job.
“If we don’t come to work, our patients don’t eat, they don’t get transferred to where they need to go, there is no Northwestern without us,” said Kimberly Smith, chief steward of the union and a patient care worker.