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Union supporters flood Sterling council chambers

Staff share frustrations with hospital leadership

STERLING – Nurses and staff from CGH Medical Center recently packed City Council chambers to explain why they think union representation is needed at the city-owned hospital.

During public comment period at last week’s meeting, the group also accused CEO and President Dr. Paul Steinke of reneging on his promise to remain neutral – a promise Steinke, who did not attend the meeting, said he did not make.

“Their definition of neutral is being silent,” Steinke said. “I’m not going to be neutral; I’m going to share my opinion.”

If the hospital were to vote in favor of a union, he said he would remain neutral on the staffs’ decision and accept what comes along with it. For now, though, he said he’s going to share his opinion.

“My opinion is that it’ll be worse for the community. It has the potential to cut back the services, community access and increase cost for the community.”

For instance, he said, working in health care “doesn’t always fit nice and neatly into a well defined box.” A union contract would not allow for flexibility.

“Sometimes, when I was delivering babies and seeing people in the office, we didn’t get done until 7 p.m.,” Steinke said. “Under a rigid union structure it becomes much harder to staff for that, so I think the community would suffer in that regard in the care our patients receive.”

The council, for the most part, remained silent during the public comment period. The only person on the council to speak was Mayor Skip Lee, who told the crowd that the council has no control over what happens at the hospital.

“The city-owned hospital label is actually a misnomer,” Lee said. “So, while I welcome your points of view – I’m glad you’re expressing them – keep in mind we have no managerial role at CGH.”

Representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 have been speaking with CGH workers for more than a month in an effort to represent the staff.

Linda Bell, a CNA at CGH and one of at least 80 people who attended the council meeting, said she also attended an informational meeting at which Steinke said he’d remain neutral but pivoted during the meeting.

“Dr. Steinke said he would be neutral at this meeting, but then he went ahead and gave his opinion,” Bell said. “He’s neutral but he says, ‘I don’t think you need the union here. I think we do a fine job without them.’”

Bell has come down on both sides of the debate in years past, as someone who was represented by a union and as a member of management. She sees a benefit in forming a union at CGH.

“I think it would improve for patients and it would definitely improve staff,” Bell said. “You can’t improve something for the patient and that not rub off on to the staff, so I think it would be great all around.”

Forming a union would address concerns that Bell said she thinks haven’t been considered.

She said nurses in her unit often handle more patients than they should, creating a real concern for patient and staff safety.

Another concern is about nurse-to-patient ratios, Bell said.

“Just the other night I had nine patients. I think the ideal number would be five patients. You can’t do a good job when you have too many patients.”

A state bill that would have implemented nurse-to-patient ratios, House Bill 2604, failed in the General Assembly this session.

Danny Chun, spokesperson for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, a group that opposed the bill, said nurse staffing in particular could change daily because staffing is based on the needs of the patients and needs are prioritized by factors such as age and patient conditions.

“There’s no magical formula that says in every unit at all times you need [a certain] amount of nurses,” Chun said. “Health care cannot boil down to a simple set of numeric formulas.”

It’s also not uncommon for nurses to do one-on-ones with patients who are in a mental crisis that makes them homicidal or suicidal, Bell said. In certain circumstances, there needs to be another safety plan in place to protect CGH staff and other patients.

“It’s not a matter of if something’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when something’s going to happen, and how bad it’s going to be,” she said.

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