More than 100 health care workers rallied outside St. Joseph Hospital earlier this week, calling attention to concerns about understaffing at the hospital. (Dan Squier — The Times-Standard)
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Arcata resident Jessica Corral woke up at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning ready for a new day at work as a tech in the emergency department at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka.

She was tired and had trouble sleeping the night before. An experience with a patient the previous day kept running through her mind. But she tried to shrug it off.

“I arrived at work, ready to conquer my shift,” she said in an email to the Times-Standard. “I began my normal duties — cleaning rooms, stocking supply carts, performing EKGs, drawing blood, etc.”

It was four hours into her shift that she was called into an unexpected meeting by her manager. There she met an unfamiliar woman who identified herself as a human resources representative.

“I tried to fight back the lump in my throat as I turned to my manager and asked, ‘Am I being fired?’ Her eyes began to swell with tears and she nodded ‘yes.’” Corral wrote. “She hugged me as I sobbed hysterically.”

Corral was one of 25 employees laid off this week by St. Joseph Hospital, according to Hospital spokesman Christian Hill.

In Corral’s case, the reason given to her by the HR representative and her manager was a lack of seniority. She was six weeks away from her one year anniversary, she said.

Hill said the eliminated positions were primarily at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, but a few positions were also eliminated at Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna. He noted that all staff positions that were eliminated received severance packages that include 90 days of pay and benefits.

“We are doing everything we can to support affected caregivers and to transition them to a position elsewhere within St. Joseph Hospital or Redwood Memorial if eligible and, whenever possible, to find opportunities within SJH,” Hill said.

The move by the hospital to trim staff came days after more than 100 health care workers rallied outside the Eureka hospital calling for higher staffing levels.

“Every day the hospital staff runs on a near skeleton crew as a direct result of your establishment’s goal to fiscally save,” Corral said. “It was made clear that employee and patient safety were no longer priorities when several months ago the decision was made to place the hospital on a hiring freeze.”

Allen McCloskey, a union organizer for the National Union of Healthcare Workers who helped organize Monday’s rally and a St. Joseph Hospital employee, said the layoff will directly affect patient care.

“It means doing a lot more with less.” he said Thursday. “It also means that we’re going to be missing breaks, not able to observe lunches. More importantly, it means a degradation of the quality of care that we are going to provide to our community. When people are overworked and missing breaks, that is when accidents happen.”

He said the union is contacting local legislators.

“Our union is stepping up tenfold to make sure that this does not go unchallenged,” he said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, who was contacted by the union, called the issue “critical.”

“Our main concern is always the safety and care of North Coast residents and we will be sitting down with all sides of this critical issue,” McGuire said.

McCloskey said he is concerned there could be more layoffs coming.

“It sounded like there was going to be more of what they are calling staffing realignments,” he said. “… But that hasn’t been confirmed.”

Hill maintains the nature of health care is transforming and that necessitates changes in the workforce.

“As health care continues to evolve so too must our work,” he said. “The jobs we had five years ago are not the jobs we need today. We are realigning some of our processes, services, people and support needed to best serve our communities now and in the future.”

Lesley Ester, a register nurse and a representative of the California Nurses Association, is concerned that nurses will be forced to add additional duties into their already packed shifts.

“Nursing aides and nurses now have to take over the job that used to be a 12-hour job and now fit that into their own 12 hour job,” she said Thursday.

But Hill disagrees with the message from both Ester and McCloskey.

“Unfortunately, the union is taking a destructive and divisive approach by making misleading claims about patient safety and staffing in response to changes we are making and the announcement of the elimination of some positions,” Hill said. “While we understand change is hard and the elimination of positions is never easy, attempts to cling to outmoded or unsustainable practices is counterproductive.”

McCloskey noted that the hospital can afford to keep the positions, with Redwood Memorial posting income of $14.38 million in 2017 and St. Joseph Hospital making $43.77 million.

Corral said she is concerned the lack of staff will impact the level of care — something she saw after positions were left unfilled by a hiring freeze.

“Direct effects of this included the inability to stay on task, medication errors, mislabeled laboratory specimens, increased wait times, slow admission process, severe impaction of the department, and overall lack of quality care,” she said. “With a rough average of 100 patients being registered daily through the emergency department, I can only see these problems exacerbating as flu season rapidly approaches.”

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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