Chicago’s COVID-19 nurse shortage shows why Illinois must join Nurse Licensure Compact

Chicago’s COVID-19 nurse shortage shows why Illinois must join Nurse Licensure Compact

The interstate nursing license compact received bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly but was opposed by labor unions. COVID-19 medical staffing shortages prove the wisdom of letting nurses be more mobile.

Joining an interstate compact that would allow out-of-state nurses to practice in Illinois could ease the burden of Chicago’s nursing shortage, but legislation aimed at that goal was opposed by union interests.

Faced with a shortage of staff to meet its needs, the city of Chicago outsourced some of its public health staffing to a nursing temp agency in Florida at a cost of nearly $5 million a year, according to WBEZ reporting. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, which caused the demand for nurses to skyrocket across the country. There are 16 nurse vacancies the health department is trying to fill.

While filling those positions is slowed by a long onboarding process, Chicago’s situation is indicative of a nationwide nursing shortage that has contributed to an increasing reliance on temporary staff.

Illinois was facing an impending shortage of nurses even before the pandemic, and COVID-19 put additional stress on a labor force already stretched thin. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued executive orders in spring 2020 easing some of the restrictions to getting more medical personnel where they were needed, but the General Assembly should do more to address a long-term nursing shortage.

Nurse Ali Conrad said a multi-state license would let her help in pandemic hot spots.

“The compact license could help afford me the opportunity to contribute to fighting the pandemic and sharing my skills and knowledge at other hospitals without the headache of obtaining new licenses for every different state I travel to.”

She also volunteers with Camp One Step for Chicago-area kids with cancer.

“We travel with the kids to camp programs, some of which are out of state in Wisconsin and Utah,” Conrad said. “As a nurse volunteering for their programs, I recently had to apply for licenses in those other states to be able to volunteer as a nurse with them. So, compact licensing can also make volunteer work and giving back to the community outside of Illinois more accessible for me, too.”

Legislation introduced in the Statehouse could have made it easier to find qualified candidates to fill positions, but was opposed by labor interests. With bipartisan support in both the Illinois House and Senate, joining the Nurse Licensure Compact would have opened the door to all nurses holding multi-state licenses from the 34-state compact. It would have increased the talent pool and allowed out-of-state nurses to live and work in Illinois without having to obtain an additional license.

Illinois nurses would have seen their career horizons broadened as well, and would have been able to easily take jobs in those other 34 states and help in areas hardest hit by the pandemic. Both Senate and House versions of the bill garnered bipartisan support with 19 sponsors in the Senate and 15 in the House. The Senate version passed unanimously out of the Senate Licensed Activities Committee, yet the bill never received another vote.

The Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Nurses Association, and the Chicago Federation of Labor were some of the organizations that filed public notices of opposition to this bill. Meanwhile, AARP Illinois, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, the Health Care Council of Illinois, the Illinois HomeCare & Hospice Council, and dozens of other organizations, institutions and individuals all registered their support for the bill.

Despite its strong start, unions pulled the plug on this bill.

The Nurse Licensure Compact would not be a panacea for Chicago’s staffing struggles, but it would have given the state a larger pool of candidates to recruit from, with the added benefit of providing greater career opportunities for Illinois nurses. But in the face of union opposition, that opportunity was forestalled.

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