JOLIET – Nurses at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center on Wednesday authorized a strike by a vote of 529 to 89.
No strike is scheduled but the vote gives the negotiating committee the authority to call a strike if contract talks break down.
Negotiations are scheduled for Thursday and Friday. The existing contract expires at the end of Saturday, but a spokesman has said that the earliest that the union would strike is May 22.
Two-thirds of the nurses had to vote in favor of the strike to authorize the negotiating committee to call a walkout, said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the Illinois Nurses Association.
The INA represents more than 800 nurses at Presence Saint Joseph.
A federal mediator joined contract negotiations this week.
“This is about patient safety as well as fairness and equity,” Alice Johnson, executive director of the INA, said in a written statement. “The focus for the nurses should be patient care, and they shouldn’t be distracted by being pulled away for cleaning tasks.”
INA contends that hospital administration wants to cut costs by having nurses do housekeeping and patient transport duties.
Presence Saint Joseph President Robert Erickson said in a statement that the administration was "disheartened" by the vote.
"By voting to authorize a strike, INA members have given up their right to INA to decide when and whether to strike, regardless of what offers Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center presents," Erickson said.
The two sides are divided over pay and work duties.
The union has said it wants increases in pay to compensate experienced nurses who at times are making less than newly hired nurses brought into the hospital at higher rates of pay. Administration said those incidents are isolated and has offered to resolve the pay discrepancies where they occur.
Nurses want pay increases that the union says total 20 percent over the course of a three-year contract.
Hospital administration has said the nurses proposal amounts to a 23 percent increase. They have offered a two-year contract with increases of 2.5 percent and 2 percent.
Martin said any strike would be limited to three days at most.
But the union in a news release after the vote noted that nurses in 1993 conducted a 61-day strike at the hospital over wages and working conditions.