CHICAGO (CBS) -- More than 2,200 nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center are on strike Friday morning, after contract talks with the hospital broke down this week amid a dispute over staffing levels.
"Our main issue is safe staffing. We are working short, it seems, all of the time; every day, every shift," nurse Grazyna Cohen said.
Hundreds of nurses – many in their uniforms, others in red T-shirts – began picketing outside the hospital at 7 a.m. as their one-day strike began.
The striking nurses said they're sending a message about patient safety.
"We did not walk out on our patients. We walked out for safe staffing, which is for our patients," nurse Johnny Webb said.
The nurses said they're being forced to work long hours and cannot provide the proper care their patients need.
"Nurses are not just striking just to be striking. It is not something that anyone wants to do," registered nurse Denise Summers said.
Summers has worked as a nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center for almost 10 years. She said change is drastically needed.
"Nurses are not able to take lunch. Many times we're not able to take breaks. We're penalized if we take sick time. And you get burnt out," she said.
One of the sticking points in contract negotiations has been staffing. National Nurses United said the nurses have filed more than 1,700 complaints detailing staffing problems since January 2017.
The nurses said state law requires a one-to-four nurse to patient ratio, but they often have a one-to-six ratio in the emergency room.
"When you have five patients, you cannot be with all five at the same time, and frequently that's what's required," Cohen said.
The union also has said because the hospital is often short on nurses, they are often asked to work in departments where they have little to no experience.
"Our OR for the pediatric population, the nurses that come in on the weekend are either from our adult side or they're on call," Summers said.
National Nurses United said nurses who do have experience in that field are required to be on call for up to 24 hours a week. Nurses also said they are required to work overtime after their 12-hour shifts, and are penalized for using sick time.
However, the hospital has said staffing is not an issue, arguing their staffing levels are the best in the state and city, and that the number of staffing complaints from nurses represent less than half a percent of all staffing assignments during that time.
"We are inarguably one of the safest hospitals in the country, and the data support that for certain, and we're going to remain focused on that," University of Chicago Medical Center chief medical officer Stephen Weber said.
The hospital accused the union of distorting the facts on staffing issues.
"Unfortunately, as we really made a generous proposal around that, recognized as a generous proposal by the union negotiator, she put additional things on the table as core issues, and it was clear that we're so far apart on those that both sides determined there was no more productive conversation to be had," University of Chicago Medicine senior vice president Debi Albert said.
Albert said the main additional issue is compensation. According to the hospital, nurses represented by the union are already the highest paid in Chicago and Illinois.
Summers said the strike ultimately comes down to patient care, and getting hospital leaders to listen.
"We are there. We are at the bedside. We're in the clinics. We're in the procedure areas," she said.
Although the nurses will be on strike only one day, the hospital has said they won't be allowed back to work for five days.
To keep the hospital running during the strike, the University of Chicago Medical Center brought in hundreds of temporary nurses, and officials said they had to give them a five-day guarantee, so the striking nurses won't be back at work until Wednesday, when contract negotiations resume.
The hospital went into full bypass late Wednesday night, requesting ambulances not bring any patients to the emergency room and instead take them to other hospitals. The medical center also transferred several patients to other facilities earlier this week, and is rescheduling some elective procedures while the union nurses are off the job.
for more features.