The petition asks for the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 22,000 health care organizations and programs across the country, to halt accreditations to hospitals that “routinely” short staff. SEIU is also asking for the Joint Commission to begin requiring hospitals to prove they have acceptable staffing levels before giving licenses and accreditations.
“During the pandemic, the amount of short-staffing issues [workers] dealt with day-to-day just escalated, and just really pulled back the curtain on how bad staffing was,” says Anne Igoe, the vice president and director of health systems for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana.
SEIU argues that short-staffing can lead to worker burnout and injury. The union says short-staffing is also dangerous for patients, who depend on workers to care for them. The union points to research indicating that higher staffing levels lead to better patient outcomes and that understaffing increases the risks of patients developing infections in hospital settings.
At the rally, workers recalled instances in which they’ve endured low staffing at their workplaces that, in some cases, forced them to perform a job solo when it would normally be done by multiple people. Others said workloads were contributing to physical injuries.
SEIU says it has already negotiated with some of its members’ hospital employers to provide additional pay if employees worked understaffed shifts. But Igoe says that’s no longer enough as the shortages have intensified, which is why it is now targeting the Joint Commission.
“Staffing is a critical and complex issue that The Joint Commission takes very seriously,” Dr. Jonathan B. Perlin, the president and CEO of the Joint Commission, said in a statement to Crain’s. “There is not a one-size-fits-all or immediate solution, especially in the context of ensuring access to patients in need with an ongoing workforce shortage. We look forward to working with other organizations and authorities on this challenging issue to create sustainable improvements for both healthcare workers and the patients we serve.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on, frontline health care workers, from service workers to physicians to nurses and even pharmacists, have been pushed to the limit, and some have left the industry for good.
Data shows that employment numbers at hospitals and nursing facilities throughout the state have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. The number of Illinois hospital workers dropped about 4% from 241,000 workers in March 2020 to 231,100 in April 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The worker shortage hit the nursing and residential care industry even harder, where the number of workers dropped nearly 14% from 140,500 in March 2020 to 121,500 in April 2022.
Leaders from providers like Advocate Aurora Health and Rush University Medical Center, as well as the potential new owners of West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park and Weiss Memorial Hospital in Uptown, have all recently told Crain’s they’re having trouble recruiting and retaining workers.
In extreme short-staffing situations, Igoe described situations in which housekeeper workers have finished their shifts and left facilities as patients waited for beds, only to come back the next day to see the same patients waiting because no one was available to turn over and clean patient rooms.
Short staffing has also resulted in workers being injured, a reality Yolanda Stewart, a patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said she faced at her workplace. In a speech at Tuesday’s rally, Stewart said she suffered a six-month back injury after being forced to reposition a bedridden patient by herself.
“As a result of short staffing at my hospital, I often have to do the job of several people by myself,” Stewart said. “This often leaves the patient with less care and puts workers in unsafe situations. Many of my coworkers have the same stories.”
Jackie Craig, who’s been a housekeeper at Loretto Hospital for five years, also complained of staffing issues at her workplace.
“I can do my best in my job … but I cannot do the job of three, four or five people,” Craig said.
Loretto and Northwestern Medicine did not respond to a request for comment.