Nurses from Maryville Behavioral Health Hospital and their supporters walked picket lines outside the Des Plaines facility Monday, launching what's expected to be a five-day strike in protest of what they call unsafe staffing levels and unfair labor practices by hospital management.
"We have constant fights, riots, injuries," said Candi Vanzandt, a second-year Maryville nurse who was among the strikers Monday. "How is being kicked, spit on, or urine thrown in your face safe? I love working with Maryville, but I want it to be safe."
The strike, which can last only five days under federal law, came after the two sides met for a final bargaining session last Friday. Those talks were "unproductive," said Chris Martin, spokesman for the Illinois Nurses Association.
Maryville Executive Director Sister Catherine Ryan read a statement outside the hospital, emphasizing that patients at the facility, which provides inpatient psychiatric care for children, adolescents and young adults between 3 and 20 years old, will remain safe and well-cared for during the walkout.
"We have stopped admissions for the past week and today we are caring for 18 children, mostly teenagers wounded by violence and the tragedies of their young lives," she said, adding that other nurses and staff members are filling in for the nurses on strike.
Ryan disputed the nurses' contention that staffing levels are too low, saying the facility's nurse to patient ratio often exceeds the 12-to-1 recommendation of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Nurses say the ratio often is closer to 20-to-1.
Ryan said the hospital cannot afford to meet the nurses' demands on salaries, benefits and staffing levels.
"Last year, we lost more than $4 million at this hospital; this fiscal year we have already lost another $3 million," Ryan added.
The nurses unionized in August 2012 in response to what they called unsafe working conditions at the hospital. Union leaders last week cited a list of 16 incidents in October and November in which nurses and other hospital workers involved in patient care were "hit, kicked and choked."
The parties opened talks on an initial contract in February 2013 and have met more than 25 times since.
Martin said there are no additional negotiating sessions scheduled this week and he expects the strike to last the full five days.
"Hopefully this will bring both sides back to the bargaining table," he said. "The whole point of this strike is to inform the public that the hospital is violating federal labor standards, has unsafe working conditions and is not negotiating in good faith."
However, Maryville spokesman John Gorman said the agency has offered to continue negotiations during the strike, but the nurses union has refused.
Alice Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association, said if the union believes the hospital is continuing to negotiate in bad faith after the five-day strike, it will consider filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, conducting a second walkout or holding informational pickets outside the facility.
"We will do whatever is necessary to get them to follow the law," she said.