California nurses sound alarm on staffing: 6 recent cases

The staffing crisis has affected nurses nationwide — but recently, multiple complaints have clustered in the Golden State. 

California has the highest population of any U.S. state, yet ranks 40th in hospital beds per capita, leading to crowded hospitals. 

"Between that and a high cost of living, it creates a huge demand, and thus expense, for both full time and contract skilled healthcare workers in California," Kenny Kadar, president of Coast Medical Service — a Hermosa Beach, Calif.-based staffing agency — told Becker's in January. 

From San Diego to San Francisco, nurses are speaking up, claiming dampened conditions for both patients and staff. Since Feb. 27, Becker's has reported six cases of alleged short-staffing in California hospitals: 

1. Jacobs Medical Center (San Diego): Members of the California Nurses Association allege unsafe overcrowding at UCSD Health's Jacobs Medical Center. Union members say patients are being placed on gurneys in hallways and kept outside in tents. The health system has hired extra nurses, but there are still not enough to meet patient demand, according to the nurses. 

The health system said it is staffing above required nurse ratios when possible. Additionally, it is using temporary overflow areas, ambulance diversions and hospital-at-home programs to control crowding. 

2. Dignity Health (San Francisco): Throughout the month of March, Dignity Health workers are protesting staffing levels at 26 California facilities. Andrea Tuma, a respiratory therapist with the health system, said they are so short-staffed, they "only have time to see the sickest of the sick." 

Members of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West seek to address these concerns through contract negotiations. The health system told Becker's that contract negotiations are ongoing and holds that the picketing events have not affected hospital operations. 

3. Ventura County health system: The California Nurses Association represents more than 700 nurses and healthcare professionals who work for Ventura County's safety-net healthcare system, located in the greater Los Angeles region. Recently, these employees have expressed concerns about staffing, pay and benefits. Overextended nurses are leaving for facilities with better pay and working conditions, according to union members. 

Barry Zimmerman — director of a Ventura County Health Care Agency that operates two hospitals and a network of clinics — said the health system is offering retention and hiring bonuses to combat staffing troubles, but did not comment on specific contract issues. 

4. UCLA Medical Center (Los Angeles): On March 1, nurses at UCLA Medical Center held a rally to address overcrowding in the facility. They allege unsafe patient placement, with beds in crowded emergency room hallways and double use of rooms. 

The health system said it is working to address the nurses' concerns, as safety is a priority. 

5. UCSF Medical Center (San Francisco): On Feb. 20, nurses at UCSF Medical Center rallied in protest of "crisis conditions," which they say are caused by unsafe staffing practices. Nurses allege the health system is violating California's nurse-to-patient staffing law; additionally, they have asked UCSF to stop placing two patients in the same room, as the cramped space creates safety issues for caregivers. 

The health system says it is complying with the state's public health department requirements, but is subject to the staffing shortages and high patient volumes felt across California. 

6. Santa Clara Valley Healthcare System: Hospital employees allege that short-staffing has led to 40 reportable instances of patient violence in one month. There are more than 300 vacant nursing roles within the three-hospital system, according to three unions representing its workers. 

The health system told Becker's its monthly average of reportable incidents is 21.75, but did not respond when asked how it plans to keep workers safe. 

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