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University Of Chicago Medical Center Prepares For Nurses' Strike After Talks Break Down

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Talks broke down between the University of Chicago Medical Center and the union representing about 2,200 nurses Wednesday night – setting the stage for a one-day strike, though the hospital will keep striking nurses off the job for five days.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United announced in a news release late Wednesday that the hospital was making final preparations for its first-ever nursing strike, which is expected to go ahead at 7 a.m. Friday.

Although the strike is scheduled to last one day, the hospital said union nurses will be replaced with temporary nurses for five days, meaning the striking nurses won't go back to work until Wednesday, the same day contract negotiations are scheduled to resume. UCMC said it trained and hired replacement nurses in anticipation of the strike, and needed to provide them a five-day guarantee.

The union said nurses are striking mainly over concerns about staffing levels.

"Right now there are times when nurses take care of more patients than they safely should be," National Nurses United chief nurse representative Talisa Hardin said. "So what we want are things like that not to happen."

However, the hospital said nurse staffing levels at the U of C are actually the best of in the state and the city. UCMC accused the union of distorting the facts on staffing issues.

"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.

The hospital said it is making final preparations for the nurses' strike.

"We're disheartened that we had to get to this point," University of Chicago Medical Center President Sharon O'Keefe said in a news release. "We worked long and hard negotiating with the help of a federal mediator and had hoped union leadership would meet us half way. We now have to focus our efforts on safely operating our hospitals and caring for the patients who depend on us."

Ahead of the strike, UCMC went on full bypass Wednesday night – meaning that ambulances a directed to take patients elsewhere.

The 618-bed academic hospital has also contracted with replacement workers who have come to Chicago from around the country, and who will remain normal operations, the hospital said. But because of concurrent strikes at hospitals in California, Arizona, and Florida, the U of C Medical Center has not been able to retain as many replacement workers as planned, the news release said.

Thus, in addition to the ambulance bypass plan, the hospital will be limiting virtually all transfers from community hospitals, temporarily closing some inpatient units, rescheduling some elective operations, and transferring patients to other facilities "on a case-by-case basis."

Talisa Hardin of National Nurses United said Monday that U of C nurses have been without a contract since April. Their major concern is the average medical caregiver workload.

The nurses claim staffing shortages have been a chronic problem at the hospital, with nurses filing more than 1,700 complaints since 2017.

However, the hospital says those complaints represent less than half a percent of all staffing assignments during that time.

Meanwhile, administrators said Tuesday that they had already transferred about 10 to 15 patients – all children -- to other hospitals in anticipation of a possible strike.

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