Calmatters: Hospitals Brace For Strikes As California Workers Protest Staff Shortages

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In the Central Valley, the region hit hardest by the delta surge, National Guard medics have been deployed since September to assist area hospitals.

The reason for the shortages? Record patient volumes at the same time that many workers have been driven away from the bedside by burnout and the seemingly unending stress of the pandemic, with some taking early retirement.

SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West estimates that about 10% of its members — close to 10,000 people — have retired, left the profession, or taken extended leaves of absence during the pandemic.

“What’s really important is that 10% doesn’t turn into 15%, does not turn into 20%. There’s not enough temporary staff out there to fix what’s going on,” said Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW.

The shortages are an untenable scenario, unions say — one that has persisted for many years brought to a boiling point by the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, union grievances with hospitals are increasingly about inadequate staffing, although bargaining over pay remains a key issue.

Money matters when it comes to holding onto workers, they say, especially because temporary staff brought on for pandemic response often make more than regular employees. In some instances, traveling nurses have been paid $10,000 per week at California hospitals with severe staffing needs.

“You’re paying exorbitant amounts for travelers while the existing workforce makes exactly the same amount [as before the pandemic],” Regan said.

Striking to 'stop the bleeding'

Early in the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced efforts to expand the health care workforce through a volunteer health corps. Although tens of thousands signed up, most people didn’t have the necessary medical skills, and only 14 volunteers worked out.

The California Department of Public Health also signed a $500 million contract to help hospitals pay for emergency health care workers like traveling nurses. That contract expired in June.

Unions say those efforts are a Band-Aid on a larger problem. Instead, they say policymakers should get hospitals to try harder to retain their current employees.

“Right now, hospitals, the health industry, the state of California, you need to do a lot more so that it doesn’t get worse,” Regan said. “We’re doing very little as a state to support this workforce that has been under a really unique set of pressures.”

Alameda Hospital nurses cheer as cars honk in support during a march at the hospital on Oct. 7, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In an early attempt to stop the churn, SEIU-UHW sponsored a bill that would have provided hazard pay retention bonuses to health care workers. Opposed by the hospital association, the bill stalled before it was voted upon by the Assembly and did not make it to the Senate.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance who introduced the bill, said the hospitals’ claims that they couldn’t afford hazard pay were unfounded since they received billions in federal pandemic funds, some “specifically earmarked for hazard pay and bonuses for frontline workers.”

“The state made a decision that they were not going to provide financial incentives to recognize and retain health care workers, and we think that’s shortsighted,” Regan said.

Over the summer, hundreds of nurses at hospitals, including USC’s Keck Medicine, San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital and Riverside Community Hospital, staged strikes over inadequate staffing and safety concerns.

Now more than 700 hospital engineers employed by Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California have been striking for four weeks, demanding higher wages.

In Antioch, more than 350 workers at Sutter Delta ended a week-long strike over inadequate staffing Friday but have yet to reach a contract agreement with their employer.

In the Victor Valley and Roseville, hundreds of workers staged recent rallies and vigils to highlight what they’re calling a “worker crisis.” Advocates say their upcoming schedules are packed with pickets planned in solidarity with other unions.

Source : https://www.kqed.org/news/11892581/hospitals-brace-for-strikes-as-california-workers-protest-staff-shortages

Hospitals Brace for Strikes as California Workers Protest Staff Shortages
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