Stroger Hospital nurses could face firing after what they say was a Halloween-themed bargaining march — including a plastic rat, skeleton and a bouquet of dried flowers

Alice Yin, Chicago Tribune

Five nurses at Stroger Hospital could be fired or face other discipline for what they say was a Halloween-themed union march last month that the county hospital system said included delivering threatening items to at least one other employee.

A group of about 20 nurses gathered outside the Near West Side campus the Wednesday before Halloween to inform their managers that their union, National Nurses United, had started contract bargaining and to deliver their contract demands, said Rhodelyn Bedford, a registered nurse at Stroger’s critical care burn unit.

Bedford, who was in the group, said they carried Halloween themed props up the hospital’s fifth floor while escorted by hospital police. Some of the items they carried included a bouquet of dried flowers with a golden, plastic rat gripping a skeleton inside, Bedford said. The nurses delivered the flowers to one of their managers before officers told the group to leave because there were too many people, she said.

The following day, Bedford and four other nurses, one of whom also works in the intensive care unit, received notices from Cook County Health informing them of an immediate paid administrative leave and an investigatory meeting that could result in suspension or termination, according to union officials and a letter obtained by the Tribune.

“On October 28, 2020, you made threats against one or more CCH employees in a number of ways,” the letter says before citing the props and alleging the following infractions: fighting or disruptive behavior, employee abuse or harassment and intimidating or coercing another employee.

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Cook County Health spokeswoman Caryn Stancik declined to comment on the specifics but wrote in a statement, “What I can tell you is that we take our obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment or intimidation very seriously and will hold employees accountable for actions that violate our personnel rules and rules of conduct.”

Bedford said she believes the letter was retaliation for the union activity. She said the use of Halloween-themed props was intended to be a lighthearted attempt to illustrate their bargaining demands, Bedford said. She held a sign with a picture of a skeleton in a nurse’s costume with the slogan, “Nurses Waiting 4 Change” — which she said was meant to imply, “I’m already bones and I’m still not getting anything.”

Bedford said Cook County Health management’s allegations against them are “totally, totally all made up.” She said their goal was to “deliver our platform” of a safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratio, of stopping the proposed cuts under the 2021 Cook County budget plan, which is set for a vote later this month and would likely result in hospital layoffs, and ending what they described as systemic racism in the health system.

A disciplinary hearing was held last week, but there was no immediate decision, union officials said. Stancik, the spokeswoman, wrote that all employees have a chance to “explain their version of events” during these disciplinary procedures.

Genevieve Lewis, a neonatal intensive care unit registered nurse at Stroger, said she walked away from her meeting frustrated by the questions she was asked.

“He kept elaborating on these dead flowers and a skeleton and a golden rat, but he didn’t want to discuss staffing, which we felt a little bit upset about,” Lewis said. “It was all about, you know, threats and intimidation, dead flowers. That’s what he wanted to talk about, and we told him we can’t talk about that because nobody threatened anyone.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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