Community members and hospital workers protest layoffs at St. Joseph Hospital

Hospital claims union is 'misleading community'; health care workers say layoffs mean increased workload, longer waits

St. Joseph Hospital employees and supporters calling for safer staffing levels hold an informational picket in front of the hospital on Tuesday afternoon. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard)

Denise Smith, a health care worker for In-Home Supportive Services, says she is frightened by the recent layoff of 25 hospital workers at St. Joseph Hospital earlier this month.

Her brother was at St. Joseph Hospital for three and a half months during which time he was in and out of the intensive care and progressive care unit, according to Smith. As she helped her brother through the process, she says she could see firsthand the importance of adequate staffing.

“There’s no way this hospital can run efficiently with that many layoffs,” she said. “It’s scary because my brother is in palliative care. If he doesn’t get attention immediately, he could pass. It’s people on the fringe like him that are really at risk.”

Smith was one of an estimated 200 people who took part in an informational picket Tuesday afternoon outside of St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka. Many of those in attendance held signs protesting the recent elimination of 25 positions at St. Joseph Hospital and Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna, a move they say could affect patient safety.

Increased workloads

Lindsey Mendez, a registered nurse in the emergency department, said the layoffs have increased the workload of nurses tremendously, but assures the public that even though they are stretched thin, they’re holding it together.

“Regardless of the cuts, we’re doing amazing,” Mendez said. “Despite the administrative hardships, we are dedicated — that’s why we became nurses.”

On the first day of work after layoffs, Mendez said her patient to nurse ratio was double what it normally was — instead of the usual four to one ratio, Mendez had an eight to one patient ratio.

“We can’t get our work done on time,” Medez said.

Mendez said despite almost a decade of nursing experience, and the learned efficiency that comes with those years, she has logged overtime on a regular basis. She believes this is the case for nurses across the board who have been affected by the layoffs, which means the hospital is paying more overtime as a result of less staff.

“Imagine how much that costs,” Mendez asked.

The increased burden is “unsafe because you’re always catching up,” Mendez said.

She said all the extra things nurses do, such as ensuring visiting families have food, fall to the wayside. Nurses in her position are now forced to choose between fluffing a pillow for a patient, or giving medication to another.

Overall, Mendez said the layoffs have resulted in a work environment that leaves her with “an increased sense of dread that something is going to go wrong.”

While Mendez believes she and her colleagues can safely handle the increased burden, she said the long-term implications of the increased burden on nurses will be seen when it comes to retention. Mendez said she is dedicated to improving rural health care, but prospective hires from out of town might not carry the same passion.

Adding a high workload to an already remote area, Mendez said, is likely to decrease the retention rates of hospital workers at St. Joseph Hospital.

Tracie Connor, another RN at St. Joseph Hospital, challenged executives to think about the toll an increased work burden takes on the personal lives of hospital staff.

“No one thinks about how we are when we go home,” she said. “I get home from work and I have to go be a mom of two kids.”

Hollie Klingel of Eureka, right, St. Joseph Hospital employees and other supporters calling for increased staffing levels hold an informational picket in front of the hospital on Tuesday afternoon. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard)

Hospital response

St. Joseph Hospital spokesman Christian Hill sent out a statement from the hospital on Tuesday afternoon calling the informational picket “an unwarranted negative attack campaign against our hospitals” and assured recipients the protest would not negatively affect patients, their families, or caregivers.

Renee Saucedo, an organizer with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said the only negative thing the protest was focused on “is the layoff of 25 workers in the midst of a staffing crisis.”

“The community and union are simply holding them accountable … the crisis is so bad health care workers and nurses are coming out in the hundreds because they can’t keep quiet anymore,” she said.

The statement from Hill also claimed the union’s statements about staffing and patient safety were “misleading.”

“The community deserves the facts, not misleading claims by the unions concerning staffing and patient safety,” the statement said. “Let us be clear: we will never compromise on our high standards in terms of quality and safety. Great care and robust services are available at our hospitals and we stand by our track record of providing excellent health and wellness care in Humboldt County.”

But Saucedo doesn’t buy the hospital’s statement.

“I wish what they’re saying publicly were true. I don’t know what’s misleading,” she said.

“According to their own financial records and public state records, the facts are the hospital earned $43 million over the last 3 years. Some of that money should be spent on patient care through staffing not by cutting staff,” she said. “St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial unionized employees will continue to organize and hold the hospital accountable around patient care.”

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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