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A 'moral and ethical struggle': California nurses threaten Christmas Eve strike over work conditions

There is a serious problem with staffing, appropriate PPE and other conditions that puts "patients in potentially dangerous situations," one nurse said.
Image: Los Robles Regional Medical Center
Los Robles Regional Medical Center.Google

A nurses strike scheduled to begin on Christmas Eve threatens operations at three Southern California hospitals as the nurses allege that work conditions put staff safety at risk.

The Hospital Corporation of America on Monday received a 10-day notice of the intent to strike by about 2,450 registered nurses and licensed professionals across three of its hospitals, according to the SEIU Local 121 union chapter, which represents them. The strike would begin Dec. 24 and continue through Jan. 3, at Riverside Community Hospital, Los Robles Regional Medical Center, and West Hills Hospital & Medical Center.

The call to picket follows frustration in contract negotiations for four bargaining units over workplace safety and staffing, said Terry Carter, spokesperson for SEIU Local 121.

Members of the bargaining committees have felt Hospital Corporation of America management were unwilling to offer substantive counters to their “comprehensive proposals,” Carter said.

“Management just keeps coming back with weak, unenforceable, and vague lip service,” Carter said.

Registered nurses have taken issue with “dangerously low staffing levels” and lack of adequate personal protective equipment that have put them at risk for infection as the coronavirus pandemic continues to overwhelm frontline workers, according to the union.

The Hospital Corporation of America issued a statement saying that it has bargained in "good faith" to secure a new labor agreement and that the union's push to have nurses "abandon the bedside" was "unconscionable."

"As a result of the union's decision to strike during this challenging time, our hospitals must limit their full scope of services in order to ensure nurses are available to care for patients with the highest needs," the statement said.

Nurses Riverside Community Hospital have been struggling with staffing issues for years prior to the pandemic and had reached a mediated agreement with the hospital that worked well until it expired at the end of May, according to Katherine Montanino, an ICU nurse and bargaining team member. There was a strike in June over the matter, and bargaining members began new negotiations with the hospital, on top of their already scheduled shifts.

"It's so emotionally draining to do these back and forths, I mean we're nurses, we're not lawyers," Montanino said. "We want to be there to take care of people. We're prone to get taken advantage of because of our moral and ethical standards and our need to want to help and take care of people."

Montanino, whose husband also works at the hospital, is supposed to work two 12-and-a-half hour shifts twice a week as a part-time nurse but has worked some shifts that lasted more than 20 hours because of staffing issues. She said she's had to skip meals and bathroom breaks, all while performing her normal responsibilities and FaceTiming family members on her personal devices as their loved ones were unresponsive.

The decision to strike was "an internal moral and ethical struggle," but 92 percent of the nurses voted to approve the strike, Montanino said.

"The moral and ethical issue is that we're trying to say that there is a problem here: a serious problem of abuse of basic human rights — of not being able to eat, not being able to drink, and placing these patients in potentially dangerous situations," Montanino said. "And they don't care."

Other areas of concern listed by the nurses and licensed professionals covered by the union include a lack of testing for staff, long wait times for Covid-19 patients to see nurses, and the amount of staff falling ill to the virus as a result of hospital conditions, according to a news release issued by the union Monday.

Montanino found that already-low staffing issues were exacerbated by staff members getting sick and being forced to quarantine. If nurses at Riverside wish to get PPE, they have to give their ID numbers and "make their case" for a new batch, sometimes threatened with discipline if they request too much, she said.

"There's not much more that we have left. And unfortunately, above it all, the patients are the ones who are suffering because they're getting substandard care," Montanino said. "And then that I think is actually what adds a lot of moral injury to nurses, is you leave your shift feeling defeated, and knowing that your hands were tied to give the best care that you possibly could."

Erin McIntosh, a rapid response nurse and bargaining team member at Riverside Community Hospital, characterized the conditions as “chaos manufactured by the hospital’s unwillingness” to listen.

“We decided going into our contract negotiations with HCA that our line in the sand is getting strong pandemic safety guarantees,” McIntosh said in the news release. “Union nurses like me have led on health and safety for decades — AIDS treatment, needle safety, aerosol-transmissible disease standards, safe patient handling. This pandemic is no different.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has tied regional lockdown orders to intensive-care unit availability, ordering regions to shut down non-essential operations for a minimum of three weeks once availability falls under 15 percent.

Southern California entered a modified lockdown last week until at least Dec. 28. An update from the state’s public health department had Southern California’s ICU capacity at 4.2 percent Sunday.