Thousands of East Bay health care workers strike, protest patient safety

More than 3,000 nurses and health care workers began a weeklong strike at East Bay…

Thousands of East Bay health care workers strike, protest patient safety

More than 3,000 nurses and health care workers began a weeklong strike at East Bay hospitals Wednesday to protest what they characterized as unsafe working conditions, mismanagement and persistent short staffing.

The strike is targeting the Alameda Health System, a government agency that operates the county’s public hospitals, which largely serve minority communities.

Health care workers on the picket lines at Alameda Hospital and San Leandro Hospital called the strike a measure of last resort after hospital administrators rebuffed their previous attempts to address staffing cuts and supply shortages in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jackie Moran, a nurse at San Leandro Hospital, was caring for a COVID-19 patient in an isolation room recently when she was alerted to an emergency in the room of a non-COVID patient. There were no other nurses available to check on the patient in need, she said.

By the time Moran emerged from the isolation room and changed her protective equipment, the patient had fallen and was lying on the floor waiting for assistance.

It’s instances like that, Moran said, that illustrate the dire need for increased staffing and a separate area for COVID-19 patients, both currently lacking.

“This is first and foremost about patient safety,” said Lisa LaFave, a registered nurse who was one of about 150 people picketing outside San Leandro Hospital on Wednesday, the first day of the strike.

LaFave said Alameda Health System has repeatedly undercut patient safety by cutting staff and withholding personal protective equipment.

“We have moved our advocacy from the bedside to the street because our employer is not listening to us,” LaFave said.

The strike was announced late last month by the California Nurses Association, which represents 150 registered nurses at San Leandro Hospital and 175 registered nurses at Alameda Hospital. Those 325 nurses have joined 3,000 technicians, housekeepers and food service workers from SEIU Local 1021 who passed a 98% vote in support of the strike against the Alameda Health System.

Nurses at Highland Hospital, which are represented by SEIU Local 1021, are also participating in the weeklong walkout.

Delvecchio Finley, CEO of the Alameda Health System, denounced the strike, calling it “egregious, unnecessary, harmful to our community.”

Finley denied many of the union’s assertions and said his agency has provided its frontline workers with adequate protective equipment and avoided layoffs throughout the pandemic.

“We are disappointed that the unions called this strike at a time when there are already extraordinary strains on health care providers,” Alameda Health System said in a statement Wednesday.

But the unions say their workers’ grievances extend deeper than the current pandemic.

The two sides have been in contract negotiations since the previous contract expired in 2018. Nurses staged a one-day strike at the Alameda and San Leandro hospitals last fall to protest what they characterized as the Alameda Board of Supervisors’ refusal to support nurses in contract negotiations.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems that existed long before the arrival of the coronavirus, said Amber Fuentes, a nurse who was one of several dozen people picketing outside Alameda Hospital on Wednesday morning.

Fuentes is one of several people representing the nurses in the contract negotiations.

In addition to chronic understaffing, Alameda Health System has put forth contract terms that would degrade the quality of nurses’ health care and cut benefits, she said.

“We have been voicing our concerns for so long, but it has fallen on deaf ears,” said Fuentes, who was out on the picket line after working an overnight shift.

The nurses say they want the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to step in and take over the countywide system that sees more than 328,000 patient visits per year, removing control from a volunteer board of trustees.

The Alameda Health System provides more than 200,000 patient hours annually — the bulk, or about 70%, are Black or Latino patients.

Alameda Health Systems has said it will continue to provide care without significant disruption throughout the strike. The hospitals have hired traveling nurses to fill in, and the nurses unions have authorized about 80 workers to continue working during the strike.

Nora Mishanec is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @NMishanec

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