University of Chicago nurses protest 'unsafe work conditions' amid COVID-19 crisis

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A group of nurses in Chicago protested what they call "unsafe work conditions" outside of the University of Chicago Medical Center Thursday.

"We are physically and mentally exhausted," said University of Chicago ICU nurse Cassandra Callaway.

Standing with several of her frontline comrades, Callaway spoke out about challenges health care workers continue to face in the fight against COVID-19. She said 30 of her fellow U of C nurses have already been infected with coronavirus.

"Our faces are blistered and bruised from non-stop use of masks of all kinds," she said.

And because that personal protective equipment, or PPE, is limited, Callaway said bathroom and water breaks are rare.

"Disposable masks, have to throw it away, otherwise you risk infecting yourself and others," she said.

Callaway is also concerned about nurses now having to empty the trash, like overflowing needle bins. And she said some nurses are being thrown into critical care with minimal preparation.

"We demand not only better staffing but adequate training, orientation and precepting," Callaway said.

The group with National Nurses United is hoping to discuss better ICU training for reserve nurses with the medical center's chief nursing officers. So far, the nurses say they've gotten no response.

In a statement about staff support, the University of Chicago Medical Center said:

"UCMC has guaranteed wages and benefits for every employee during the pandemic, even if they are healthy and there is currently no work for them."

Those benefits extend to workers who contract the coronavirus. The university also said it is buying up PPE as quickly as possible.

Callaway underscored the urgergency.

"Our COVID patients are sicker than we have ever had to deal with before," she said. "They are highly unpredictable and unstable."

Full statement from University of Chicago Medical Center:

Patients and communities across Chicago and the rest of our country are counting on all hospitals and care providers to work together to meet this great challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our team of thousands - nearly 9,800 at the University of Chicago Medical Center and over 2,000 at Ingalls Memorial - are being called upon to serve. And we are committed to doing just that.

During this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, our nonprofit hospital has committed all of its resources to caring for patients and the community and ensuring the safety of everyone on our medical campuses. We are doing everything possible to maintain employment, income and benefits for our staff even though we have postponed non-essential services and appointments. While many in this country have had to worry about furloughs or lost income if they get sick, UCMC has guaranteed wages and benefits for every employee during the pandemic, even if they are healthy and there is currently no work for them.

We have taken steps to protect all of our workers. Among the actions:
  • We require all staff to wear a mask at all times even if they do not work with patients, conduct rigorous daily wellness checks at the start of each day, keep staff home with full pay and benefits pending test results if they report feeling ill, provide readily available curbside testing, and require enhanced social distancing. We also guarantee full wages and benefits to all staff diagnosed with COVID-19, including those who acquire the infection away from work, to ensure that everyone is focused only on their health.
    We continue to invest in PPE protection, buying N95, respirator masks, PAPRs, shields, hospital scrubs, gowns, and PPE supplies for universal masking to protect staff even at a time when such supplies are scarce and prices are soaring. We have not focused on how much it costs when it comes to PPE, but on how quickly suppliers can deliver.

  • We meet or exceed all PPE guidelines issued by the CDC and state and local health authorities.

  • We have rented 200 hotel rooms so that staff members who care for COVID patients have an alternative if they prefer to stay near the campus and not go home.

  • In addition, there are dedicated EVS staff members in areas dealing directly with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients to ensure support for medical staff and to limit the spread of the virus. These spaces include cohorted inpatient floors, DCAM's outpatient testing area, the Mitchell Hospital testing facility, and the adult and pediatric emergency rooms.


  • When asked to comment specifically on some of the issues addressed by nurses Friday, University of Chicago Medicine shared the following statement with ABC 7 Chicago:

    "During the pandemic, UCMC's Chief Nursing Officer and infectious diseases specialists have been holding daily virtual town halls with medical staff, including nurses, to provide up-to-date information, receive feedback and respond to clinical questions and needs. Since April 8, 20 town halls have been held, and more are scheduled next week. As to union demands seeking to renegotiate their contract during the pandemic, UCMC's chief labor negotiator responded immediately, but the union indicated it preferred to protest.

    "UCMC has redeployed post-surgical recovery (PACU) nurses to assist with care in its ICUs rather than leaving these nurses at home. PACU nurses all have nursing degrees and ordinarily work with our sickest patients, many on ventilators. Most had extensive ICU experience before transferring to PACU. Every nurse was provided refresher training before redeployment, and could request additional time to prepare as needed."
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