USC healthcare workers authorize 5-day strike

Healthcare workers at Keck Hospital of USC, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and several university clinics and call centers in Los Angeles have authorized their bargaining representatives to call a strike, according to hospital and union statements. 

The National Union of Healthcare Workers said May 26 that more than two-thirds of workers cast ballots, and 96 percent of votes were in favor of authorizing a five-day strike. A strike date has not been set, and a strike can be averted if a deal is reached. 

The union — which represents more than 1,500 workers at Keck-USC hospitals, clinics and call centers, including nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, medical technicians and licensed vocational nurses — cited workers' desire to improve pay, protect their health and retirement benefits and preserve their right to raise awareness about workplace conditions. 

"USC has mistreated its caregivers during the pandemic," Patricia Barahona, a patient care technician at Keck Hospital of USC, said in a news release. "We've put our lives on the line for our patients; meanwhile the university has cut our retirement benefits, made it harder for us to take sick leave and refused to offer hazard pay to maintain staffing even during the worst days of the COVID-19 surge."

The union said USC canceled its annual 5 percent contribution to employee retirement accounts in 2020 and has rejected proposals to reverse the decision. The union said USC also proposes a 9 percent increase in employee healthcare premiums and refuses to restore holiday pay for workers at Norris; insists on the right to subcontract workers; refuses to guarantee emergency housing and hazard pay in the event of a future public health crisis; and wants to eliminate workers' right to picket and publicly protest about patient care concerns for the duration of the contract. 

Keck Medicine of USC expressed disappointment about the vote to authorize a strike and cited progress in contract negotiations.

"Negotiations are still underway, and we have reached tentative agreements on many issues. Our proposals offer improvements in various areas, including staffing, workplace safety, above-market compensation and other issues important to our health system and employees," the health system said in a May 26 statement provided to Becker's. "We remain hopeful that we can solidify an agreement without a work stoppage."

Officials said Keck Medicine also "has upheld exemplary safety measures throughout all stages of the pandemic," and for the benefit of staff, has offered employees free housing accommodations to provide quality rest while keeping loved ones safe. The health system said it has also provided staff with access to free mental health support, as well as tutoring for young children, legal services and on-site grocery services. 

"The health system is committed to protecting patients, staff and visitors and recently received its fourth consecutive "A" hospital safety grade from the Leapfrog Group. We also received the 2020 Patient Safety Honor Roll Award from the California Health and Human Services Agency, Hospital Quality Institute and Cal Hospital Compare. This recognition is the result of strict adherence to quality and safety programs for our patients and our dedication to continuous improvement," said Keck Medicine. 

The health system added, "We recognize that our employees and their commitment to our patients is what makes us a top-20 U.S. News & World Report-ranked health system."

Bargaining is scheduled to resume May 27. 

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