Northern California healthcare workers vote to strike in October

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More than 500 healthcare workers at Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch, Calif., and John Muir Behavioral Health Center in Concord, Calif., have voted to strike in October, according to Sept. 14 hospital and union statements.

The workers, who are members of Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare West, cited inadequate staffing at the facilities, as well as difficult working conditions and unfair labor practices. 

"We're drowning. There's just not enough staff," Jennifer Stone, an emergency room technician at Sutter Delta Medical Center, said in the union news release. "We're wearing too many hats — we're talking down angry COVID patients, then we're rushing to a code, then we're talking to family members who just lost a loved one. We can't give adequate care. We're being neglected and left to fend for ourselves, and we can't do it all anymore." 

Workers say staffing issues existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public health crisis has exacerbated an already strained infrastructure, according to the union.

"We're so short-staffed that someone’s being asked to work overtime after every single shift," Bertha Lopez, a unit secretary at John Muir Behavioral Health Center, said in the union news release. "We're burned out, we're exhausted, and we can't go on like this. John Muir needs to address the understaffing issues that have made working conditions impossible here."

Sutter Delta Medical Center, part of Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, expressed disappointment about the strike votes. 

Sutter Health spokesperson Marissa Currie stated: "We're pleased employees at seven SEIU-represented hospitals have all voted to ratify their contracts. Sutter values our employees and the tireless, compassionate care they provide our patients. We are disappointed that one hospital voted to reject the contract, but we look forward to returning to negotiations and bringing the contract at Sutter Delta Medical Center to resolution."

She said Sutter Health continues to bargain in good faith "to avoid a costly strike and remain focused on our shared commitment to patient care at a time when our communities need us most."

Ben Drew, a spokesperson for John Muir Health, which has held 12 negotiating sessions since mid-May to reach a contract agreement with the union representing workers at its behavioral health center, also expressed disappointment about the strike votes. 

"We are disappointed that SEIU-UHW leaders are now threatening a strike when we have reached agreement on a number of issues and are addressing the staffing concerns raised in their news release. Since June 2021, we have filled 18 positions and are in the process of hiring for 11 additional positions,"  Mr. Drew stated. 

He said the hospital has been reducing admissions "so that we always have adequate staff to care for our patients," and unionized workers "have been asked if they would volunteer for overtime shifts as we continue the hiring process, but it is never mandated."

"Unfortunately, SEIU-UHW's leaders' response to staffing concerns has been to encourage employees not to take overtime or open shifts. The union just completed a two-week labor action that caused us to further limit behavioral health admissions to children, adolescents and adults," Mr. Drew said.

The strike votes apply to workers at both hospitals including emergency room technicians, mental health counselors, respiratory therapists, environmental services technicians, phlebotomists, transporters, psychiatric technicians, licensed vocational nurses and unit secretaries. The strikes are set to take place in October unless agreements are reached.

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