A small sea of individuals in red shirts surrounded the entrance of St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka as members of the National Union for Healthcare Workers began a day-long strike amid ongoing contract negotiations that have extended nearly eight months.
Emotions were running high late Wednesday morning with union members holding signs asking for better wages and health care benefits. The signs encouraged passersby to honk in support, something many motorists did while driving down Harrison Avenue.
Among the picketers was Angela Devilbiss, a nurse’s aide at St. Joseph Hospital and a College of the Redwoods nursing student. Colleagues called her “outspoken.”
She said she was frustrated by the negotiations deadlock and she was adamant about a need for cost-of-living increases. She also said staffing shortages left her with 20 to 30 patients to care for during a shift when the hospital is “staffed to acuity, it’s one aide to 10 patients.”
“A lot of times, patients, unfortunately, they have to lay in feces and urine for too long,” she said. “I need someone to help me turn a patient. When I have to ask nurses to help, it delays them getting medications to patients. … Conditions have been pretty bad.”
She added that when new people are hired “it takes three months to get them on the floor” after completing background checks and drug screenings.
“You see people quit or move to another department,” she added, noting, “I stay because this is a job that I love to do. I work with a really good group of people.”
There are an estimated 500 local NUHW members who work at St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial hospitals. They hold positions such as Devilbiss’, a nurses aide. Other positions include lab technicians, clerical workers, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff.
Employees echoed Devilbiss’ sentiments, saying living wages are needed and better staffing to provide patients better care.
But negotiations have been at a standstill in recent weeks leading up to Wednesday’s strike. Local NUHW representative Renee Saucedo said there have been multiple requests to go back to the bargaining table, but they have been rebuffed by administrators.
“NUHW members met with a few members of the local board and we told them, we encouraged them to bring the hospital back to the table before the strike in order to avoid the strike,” Saucedo said.
The hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Roberta Luskin-Hawk, said it wasn’t possible to return to bargaining in the past week.
“While the best way to get to the table is to be at the table, it would have been to avoid calling for a strike altogether,” Luskin-Hawk said. ” At the time they made a recent offer, there was no way to get everyone together. We had to focus … as you can imagine it was a lot of work to bring people in and make sure that our community is cared for.”
The hospital did not provide an exact number of replacement workers called in to fill positions but did say 133 employees crossed the picket lines to work Wednesday. The replacement workers are all on five-day contracts.
“What we have explained to our caregivers is that if they aren’t here the day of the strike, we will welcome them back when the replacement workers are gone,” said Luskin-Hawk. “We just don’t have a need for them over those next few days if their work has been filled by a replacement worker. Some chose to come in and work despite the strike and others understand that there is a wait.”
Saucedo and the union framed the move as a four-day lockout for employees. But as the day progressed Wednesday, Saucedo said many managers called employees telling them to report for work on Thursday.
Luskin-Hawk also addressed what were perceived staffing shortages, stating the hospital meets national benchmarks for staffing.
“It’s actually very organized and rigorous,” she said. “When we have openings, based on those benchmarks, we are always recruiting…. Recently we opened up eight more positions for nurses aides and so were often hiring. “
In a My Word printed in Wednesday’s edition of the Times-Standard, Luskin-Hawk said requests like 20% wage increases over three years were “unrealistic and unsustainable.”
When asked how that was balanced with Providence St. Joseph Health giving its CEO Rod Hochman a 162% raise from $4 million to $10.5 million in 2017, Luskin-Hawk said that was not a valid comparison.
“Across Humboldt County, when you include St. Joseph Hospital and Redwood Memorial and the support that our organization and our parent company provides, in 2018, we lost $4 million,” she said. “We are trying to get leaner and more sustainable to be able to (provide) care, we need and still control our costs. Nowhere in health care do people get 20 percent raises. Nowhere. It’s not like a commodity where we can raise prices to pay people more.”
Both parties will resume negotiations in December.
Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.