Some Thoughts On the End of the Congress Plaza Hotel Strike

congress hotel strike

The Congress Plaza Hotel strike ended on Wednesday, almost ten years after it started. The strike is believed to be the longest strike in American history.

The end of the strike is a bit of a sad note because during the time the strike was occurring the standard wage for room attendants in Chicago increased to $16.40 an hour while the standard wage for room attendants at the Congress Plaza Hotel hasn’t increased at all during the strike and will not increase now that the strike is over. (The standard wage at the hotel is $8.83 an hour, which is exactly 58 cents more than Illinois’ minimum wage.)

Although the possibly good things to come out of this strike are summed up by Micah Uetricht over at In These Times

Strikers were constantly picketing in front of the hotel on Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s busiest drags. During the last half-decade, they were less likely to be in front of the hotel and more likely to be paying unannounced visits to companies or conferences that had reserved blocks of rooms at the hotel, telling their stories of hardship at the hands of the Congress and demanding the reservation be canceled. These cancellations alone may have cost the hotel millions over the years.

When companies refused to budge, UNITE HERE would escalate its tactics, often driving their targets insane. I once accompanied the union to a 5K “fun run” for attendees of a healthcare conference whose organizers had refused to cancel their Congress reservations. Strikers jogged alongside baffled spandex-clad runners, shoving fliers in their sweaty hands and explaining the impact of the hotel’s intransigence on their families. One older organizer devised a complicated scheme to make runners believe he had laid a tripline across the trail––he would pretend to pull it taut ahead of them, causing confused runners to halt in their tracks.

I really recommend you read all of his post because it does a great job of detailing UNITE HERE Local 1’s efforts, as well as mentioning how much of a dive the hotel is. (Seriously, I have heard from numerous people that the Congress Plaza Hotel is crappy. Hyatt on the other hand is the subject of criticism for its treatment of workers, but does have reputedly nice hotels.)

Although UNITE HERE keeps a very detailed list of hotels currently on strike and being boycott, most tourists probably don’t look at that list when booking reservations and simply look at how inexpensive the hotel is, its great location and make the reservation. Many big clients who booked the hotel for events backed out because of UNITE HERE. According to the Tribune, a lawsuit between the hotel and the union alleged that the production company for America’s Next Top Model held a casting call at a different hotel than the Congress Plaza Hotel after the union reached out to the production company.

So on the positive side of the story regarding this strike, the union made their voice loud and clear to big groups that would have booked hotel and probably hurt business as a result. If there is a legacy from this strike, it might be that of union members working together to let people know that something is wrong and the effect it had on numerous people both in Chicago and out of the city.

A Brief History of Kickback Schemes at Chicago Hospitals

Edgewater Medical Center in Chicago. Photo via Flickr/Zolk

Edgewater Medical Center in Chicago. Photo via Flickr/Zolk

News broke yesterday that six have been arrested in an alleged kickback scheme at Sacred Heart Hospital on Chicago’s West Side. According to the Tribune, the hospital was performing unnecessary procedures on patients in order to increase the money it received from Medicare. The procedures in this case appear to be tracheotomies, which is where an incision is made into the neck and trachea so a person can have an airway other than their mouth or nose. Usually a tube is also inserted to help the breathing occur.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Sacred Heart is a for profit hospital and in 2011 it provided $11,742 of charity care. What’s interesting is in the breakdown of patients and revenue in the annual report it says 38.2 percent of inpatients were Medicare patients but 60.1 percent of inpatient revenue came from Medicare.

Since the raid and arrests happened on Monday, this news story is still unfolding. What’s unfortunate beyond people being heavily medicated and having unnecessary procedures performed on them is if this is all true, this isn’t the first time there has been Medicare fraud committed by a Chicago hospital as part of a kickback scheme.

Edgewater Medical Center is an eyesore that has sat empty for more than a decade due to closing after numerous staff members were found guilty of Medicare fraud. The most detailed explanation I’ve found of the hospital’s closure comes from Ken Fager of American Urbex:

Vice president Roger Ehmen and medical director Dr. Ravi Barnabas were able to turn the nearly bankrupt hospital into a lucrative profit center. The pair tapped Dr. Sheshiqiri Rao Vavilikolanu and Dr. Kumar Kaliana to recruit potential patients. For years the doctors sent hospital employees into the Chicago community to find potential patients. It did not matter if they did not have heart conditions, were drug addicts, were unable to speak English or even had no health insurance coverage. Recruiters instructed the potential patients how to feign symptoms in order to mandate services rendered by Edgewater Medical Center. In return the patients were offered money, food, cigarettes and other amenities for their cooperation.

In addition to this doctors at Edgewater Medical Center performed unnecessary angioplasties, which is a procedure where arteries are widened. People were killed as a result of these procedures. As I said earlier, news broke, people were tried and the hospital closed. A simple look on Flickr for “Edgewater Medical Center” will return numerous photos from inside the hospital, many of which make it appear as if the staff simply up and left the building, forgetting to take the patient records and chemicals with them.

There are numerous questions to be brought up with both of these cases. What would compel these hospitals to do this? It’s possible that they did this simply so they could stay afloat as other hospitals in Chicago have had to close because they couldn’t afford to keep running. (RIP Michael Reese Hospital.) There are also questions that could be brought in about what it is with Medicare’s set-up that makes the use of dangerous procedures seem like a good way to increase hospital revenue. I’ve heard some things from doctors I know about the set-up of Medicare sometimes pushing them to treat more patients, but I don’t know how much of that is true.

I also find it interesting no one criticized Sacred Heart Hospital for how little charity care it provides since it’s on the west side of Chicago. Rush University Medical Center has been criticized for not providing a large amount of charity care–although it’s right next to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County–as has University of Chicago Medical Center on the south side. Again, numbers on charity care aren’t everything and I imagine its status as a for profit hospital came into play with the lack of criticism, but it does strike me as odd no one criticized this hospital.

Let’s hope this story doesn’t become worse as time progresses.

The CTA’s Ventra-Sized Problem

Over the past two weeks the Chicago Transit Authority has been dealing with a backlash and revelations regarding their new fare system, Ventra. At first glance, Ventra seems like a great idea since it would cover both CTA and Pace, potentially making the use of the suburban buses more appealing to Chicago residents who want to visit the suburbs. Ventra also allows for use of debit and credit cards to pay for fares.

Tracy Swartz of RedEye revealed single rail rides using Ventra would cost $3. On the CTA’s page for misconceptions about Ventra, they address this with the following sentence:

CTA vending machines currently do not provide change, so those without exact change are already paying $3 for a single ride.

The CTA later says that only the card costs $3, but apparently people already pay $3 for a single ride so it’s no big deal.

Swartz also reported fees which would be tacked on for people who would use a reloadable Ventra card. To get the Ventra card, one must first pay $5, which will be refunded as transit funds after the card is registered. If a user of the Ventra card does not use their card for 18 months, $5 is deducted for every month it is not in use.

The more troubling news about Ventra came from Jon Hilkevitch at the Chicago Tribune. Hilkevitch reported on numerous fees added on if users of the Ventra card also use it as a prepaid debit card, a feature the CTA has been touting on their website.

The clear option CTA users have is to try to reject the debit card option, use a 30-day pass or use their own debit card or credit card to pay for fares. Although a 30-day pass recently went up to $100, it’s still a cheaper option for people who regularly use the CTA for more than commuting to work.

The CTA meanwhile has to roll out a campaign for damage control after the recent articles. For the people who still read the Tribune and RedEye, they’re aware of this and it might make them wary of using Ventra. The potentially bigger problem with this situation is the Ventra system is no longer looking like a great situation. The fare system already had numerous options that were confusing to some users. I was recently talking to a friend and we discussed how confusing Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus can be. This was a system rolled out in the mid-2000s and it’s confusing for people from the Chicago area. Imagine how confusing Ventra will be if the CTA doesn’t properly educate the public about the program.

Time will tell if the CTA and RTA regret using this program–both systems are using the fare system, but I imagine this will affect the CTA more. There’s no turning back, but the CTA has to think fast to not have this turn into an even bigger disaster for them.

I’m mostly annoyed because I just replaced my Chicago Card.

Hospital Planning and Flu Patients

Currently the hospitals of Chicago, as well as other cities in Illinois, are seeing such a large amount of flu patients coming in that some are among the 11 hospitals in Illinois that will only handle patients with life-threatening illnesses. This is such a huge problem that my mother saw a story about it on the evening news on CBS 58 in Milwaukee.

What interested me in the Tribune‘s article on the problem was a quote from an emergency department doctor at Northwestern Memorial:

Zich estimated that more than 35 patients with flu-like symptoms passed through the emergency department’s waiting room while Northwestern Memorial was on bypass Monday night.


The majority of those ER visitors did not require medical attention, he said.


“The flu in and of itself is not a reason to come to the emergency department,” Zich said, noting that an ER visit is “not necessary” unless the flu is coupled with difficulty breathing or another serious illness, such as heart disease.

For the longest time, people have been going to ERs for minor problems. I tend to not be this type of person because of how my mother raised me. This has been speculated to be the result of people not having a primary care doctor, although I’d also point out that urgent care clinics seeming to be a relatively new thing–and incredibly scarce in Chicago as I discussed in an op-ed for Gapers Block–people might tend to go to Emergency Rooms on weekends since most doctors don’t have appointments on the weekends.

There are some hospitals in Chicago that are trying to curb the occurrences of people coming in to the ER for problems that don’t really require attention at that high of a level. According to a spokesman at Rush University that I spoke with in the spring for an article I was writing, that hospital wants to help connect patients with primary care doctors in the patient’s area. University of Chicago Medical Center has a well-intentioned program that directs patients who come into the ER for minor problems to primary care clinics. (I say well-intentioned because the program has been accused of resulting in alleged patient dumping by University of Chicago Medical Center.)

In many ways it makes sense that ERs are doing this. I can see though that a potential problem with flu patients coming in–especially since this flu strain sounds to be a bit harsh–is that in some cases flu should be taken very seriously. But in most cases, a person should stay home and wait for the bug to pass. Last February, I went to the ER at Northwestern Memorial for a shoulder injury and found that the ER was packed. Based on what I was hearing, most of the patients who were there with masks on their faces had been waiting for five hours to be seen. In addition to going to the ER being very costly, you’re going to have to wait a very long time.

However the question that I have after reading about this is if John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County is being horribly affected by this. When I visited Stroger Hospital to write about the Cook County Health and Hospital System for Gapers Block, I learned that the hospital divided up the Emergency Department into three different sections and triages the patients with problems like the flu separately from other patients. That hospital acknowledged that people will come to an ER for problems that can be treated elsewhere and figured out a way to help streamline and find a more efficient way to run an ER with this occurring.

It is inevitable that people will go to the ER for non-life threatening conditions or conditions that aren’t serious like a major injury. Something that Chicago hospitals might want to look at after this flu outbreak is how to help make an Emergency Department run more efficiently as people come in for things like the flu.

How to Lose an Audience and Alienate Readers

When I glimpse at the homepage on Facebook, which is currently closed on my browser while I have Reuters, the Tribune and the New York Times open, I tend to see a lot of news-related links that are posted. People tend to use Facebook to share interesting articles, whether it’s an article that prompts a comment about Rick Santorum (or any politician for that matter) being a douche, other news to be outraged by, stories to be lift the spirit or articles from The Onion that people think are true. On my own Facebook page I share interesting news articles I’ve found around the internet and things I’ve written for Gapers Block.

Since the launch of the Facebook redesign that upset millions of people, a user has been able to see articles people have been reading that tend to be from the Washington Post or The Guardian—this tends to be the case with the people I’m friends with. If you click on the link, you’ll see that you need to install an app in order to read the article. This way, you can read an article from the Washington Post on Facebook without going to the Post‘s website.

When the app, Washington Post Social Reader, was released, I installed it after the prompt and thought I would see how it works. About two weeks later I uninstalled the app because I never used it. I was able to find more articles on the Washington Post‘s website, which is fine by me since I’ve had an account for their website since my senior year of high school.

The app doesn’t have the Post as its sole content provider. There are also articles from Reuters, Associated Press, Slate and The A.V. Club, among others. The problem with this for me is that I gather my news in a different way than most Americans. The Reuters website is one of the sites I read at 6:30 a.m. while drinking a cup of tea and getting ready to go to work. If there’s an interesting article from any of the aforementioned sites, I will copy the link, paste it into the status box on Facebook and post a link. With this, people who are my friends on Facebook can click the link and read the article to see what I’m talking about.

An app like the Washington Post Social Reader functions as a tease. You look on Facebook, see an interesting headline, click and see that you have to install the app in order to read the article. Meanwhile, you could go to the Washington Post‘s website, find that same article and read it without needing to install an app. This user experience is similar to when The New Republic posts a link on Twitter to an article that sounds really interesting. After clicking on the link, you then find out you need to be a subscriber in order to read it. Requiring people to use an app to read articles is no different from not letting readers know they need a subscription to read an article or requiring people to have a free account on a website in order to read an article.

It’s easy to see what the idea might have been behind the Washington Post Digital Reader. People can get news their news from a site they already spend lots of time on and share articles with their friends. But when you require people to install an app to read an article, it’s ultimately easier to copy a link, paste it into a box on Facebook and hit post. The perk of that is that option is no one has to shake a fist at the computer screen.

Observations from 12 Years of Iowa Life

If you aren’t friends with people from Iowa, you may have missed Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic piece on Iowa and the fury it is inciting. The issue is mostly that Bloom, who is a teacher at University of Iowa that is currently teaching in Michigan, has portrayed Iowa as how everyone outside of Iowa thinks of Iowa. It seems as though Bloom decided to write the piece, “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” to try to explain why such a podunk little state would have such importance in the presidential election.

The problem is that rather than painting a portrait saying “Yes, Iowa has some issues, but it’s not a backwards hick state like everyone thinks it is,” Bloom has mostly created broad stereotypes or reinforced those stereotypes.

Now, as someone who spent 12 years living in Iowa, I will dissect Bloom’s piece.

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Content and Paywalls

The big Chicago media news today is that the Sun-Times will now be using a “metered method” for views of their articles. Readers will get 20 free views before they will require a digital subscription, similar to what The New York Times does.

Here’s a potential problem: I dont’t have a reason to go frequently go to the Sun-Times website. The Sun-Times rarely gives me a reason to go to their website and when they do, it’s usually because of something Lynn Sweet, Mary Mitchell or Michael Nagrant wrote.

This is potentially a problem since I’m constantly consuming the media. It could be thought that a problem is the site design, which isn’t that great.

But the website for the Journal Sentinel isn’t stunning either. In fact, the layout is somewhat similar to the Sun-Times.

For the time being, the Tribune does not have a paywall or “metered method” and people could always flock to that for news after they reach those 20 views.

But the thing the Journal Sentinel, which I will mention for a point of comparison since it’s also a local paper that won a Pulitzer this year, has as well as the Tribune are things that enhance the articles, such as videos, applications and interactive graphics. Both the Journal Sentinel and the Tribune have released these in conjunction with investigations and special reports, which makes some stories even more interesting. I have never seen the Sun-Times do this. The Sun-Times never gives a unique visitor experience, which could potentially be a problem with the paywall.

The Sun-Times still does great work and write articles no one else is writing, which could be their benefit. But if they really want to make the paywall work, they need to possibly give their site a redesign or at least provide more content to make readers want to pay for it for other than the occasional column.

More On Mob Attacks

While the situation in Boystown keeps getting a bit crazier and more depressing, Milwaukee experienced mob violence in the Riverwest neighborhood on Monday evening. In the incidents, about 22 teenagers looted a BP convenience store, prior to about 11 people being assaulted and robbed in Reservoir Park. With this incident, there is surveillance video footage from the store posted online for people to possibly help identify the suspects. As of yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that eight teenagers have turned themselves in, although another article from the Journal Sentinel says that on Wednesday four teenagers had been cited for disorderly conduct, theft, and curfew violation after their mothers called the Milwaukee police. (For a perspective from a mother that reported her children, Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate, WISN, spoke to one*.)

Today, charges were made against one person in connection to the Boystown stabbing. A longer window of time has elapsed between Sunday’s stabbing and a person being charged than the incident in Riverwest and seven people being charged. There are quite a few differences between the incidents, including that Riverwest residents haven’t started a Facebook page, there are two different police forces involved here, and Milwaukee is a little more than a fourth the size of Chicago. Another interesting aspect is that with the Milwaukee violence, both Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Mayor Tom Barrett were present at a community meeting and addressed the crowd.

Although my mother and sister live in the Milwaukee area and I visit there frequently, I know very little about Riverwest and among the things I do know, I can tell you that Lakefront Brewery has a lager named after the neighborhood. I can tell you more about the climate in Boystown because I used to patronize some businesses in that area. But first, a discussion on identity.
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Racism, Crime, and Facebook

You see these all over BoystownThere have recently been stabbings and attacks in the trendy Boystown area of Lakeview, which is home to several gay bars and the annual Pride Festival and Pride Parade. As a result of these attacks, some Boystown residents have taken to Facebook, creating a Facebook page with some blatant racist remarks. (Sample quote: “‎I’m not racist, but those black kids have got to go!”) I would have been completely oblivious to the Facebook page had it not been for a friend posting a link for the page on his Facebook profile, showing disgust.

Sunday night, a 25-year-old man was attacked and stabbed by a mob of young people in Boystown. The attack was recorded and posted on YouTube, although the video is attached to the Tribune article I linked to. Judging from that video, some of the assailants appear to African-American, although I can’t say that accurately say what the ethnicities of all the assailants are because of lighting, angles, and the quality of the video. My immediate thought after viewing the video is why some residents are jumping to the idea that African-American youths should not be welcomed in their neighborhood.

But first, some background.

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The Continuing Saga of Critics vs. Bloggers, Tweeters

For at least three years, it has been discussed as to whether or not bloggers were making theater critics, and critic in general, obsolete. This is a topic that won’t die, like whether or not print journalism is dead. In fact, the discussion of the irrelevance of print and broadcast theater critics prompted me to discuss this topic in a crudely drawn comic last year.
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