Negotiations with a federal mediator present resumed Thursday between the union representing nurses at Riverside Community Hospital and negotiators for its corporate owners, with union officials saying that a 10-day strike slated to begin on Christmas Eve will not be averted unless the other side meets “very basic demands” put on the table.
“The bargaining team gave the employer a complete package proposal Wednesday, including urgent proposals to address pandemic safety and safe staffing levels…,” according to a Service Employees International Union Local 121RN statement. “The bargaining team passed proposals months ago on pandemic safety and safe staffing levels, and raised these serious concerns long … before negotiations began. These are not new issues. Hospital Corporation of America has not remedied them.”
HCA issued its own statement, saying the “last scheduled bargaining session” Wednesday contained a number of “concessions” to the union, but there was no middle ground reached. According to the corporation, SEIU Local 121RN members have been offered “an immediate wage increase” as part of an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement, in the hope of keeping nurses on the job, but the offer was not embraced.
“We hoped that our proposal … would encourage the union to reconsider its strike at a time when area ICUs are at 100% capacity, and the entire nation faces a nursing shortage,” HCA’s statement reads. “However, the union has failed to make realistic moves regarding significant patient safety issues over the last two days and continually moved the goal posts. Union leadership does not seem serious about reaching agreement, nor reversing their shameful decision to conduct a 10-day strike at three hospitals, beginning Christmas Eve.”
The two sides returned to the table Thursday, and they are tentatively slated to resume talks on Friday.
The Dec. 24 planned work stoppage is scheduled at RCH, as well as Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks and West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles County. Roughly 900 nurses would be involved in the walkouts at the three hospitals.
According to the union, HCA needs to adopt all or key parts of the nurses’ “Pandemic Safety Platform” to reach a collective bargaining agreement. The platform establishes increased safeguards, bolstering staffing, increasing personal protective equipment availability and keeping nurses assigned to their areas of expertise, instead of placing them in unfamiliar situations.
“While scores of nurses and other healthcare workers fall ill with COVID … the corporation has provided nothing but weak, vague, unenforceable lip service to the very basic demands of their healthcare employees, whose patient care and advocacy is the number one priority,” SEIU Local 121RN alleged. “HCA’s communications machine claims that nurses and their colleagues haven’t made `realistic moves.’ Translation: the bargaining team has not agreed to watered down language that doesn’t hold the hospitals accountable for patient safety during a public health emergency.”
The union alleges HCA has ignored resource needs going back to when the emergency started, sending per diem staff home and leaving shifts unfilled, apparently to save money.
“There are few if any support staff in the units — certified nurses assistants, unit secretaries, custodial, transporters, etc. — while the hospitals applied for waivers (from the California Department of Public Health) allowing them to disregard safe nurse-to-patient ratios,” the union alleges. “The hospitals also recently lowered the amount they were willing to pay (traveling nurses), while most hospitals were offering much more.”
Union representatives allege personnel are required to endure 12-hour shifts without restroom or water breaks.
HCA stated the company is “committed to pursuing good faith negotiations and have proposed that bargaining continue with the mediator.”
“We … remain focused on protecting our community, so we will continue bargaining in good faith for as long as it takes,” the corporation said. “Meanwhile, we urge SEIU 121RN to place the well-being of patients, the community and nurses first by engaging in productive discussions and call off this unconscionable strike.”
On Tuesday, outgoing Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chairman Manuel Perez, a union supporter, said it was “not the time for a strike.”
“Let’s figure this out, work it out,” he said.
Supervisor Karen Spiegel agreed, noting that a work stoppage would trigger “a domino effect.”
“If RCH has to shut its doors, they’ll be pushing patients to over-capacity hospitals in other areas,” she said. “This is an unprecedented time.”
In previous work stoppages at RCH, nurses have taken part in rotating pickets, with some still on the job, while others gather in front of the medical center. There was a walkout over the summer.
County Emergency Management Department Director Bruce Barton said RCH is “one of the largest receivers” of emergency-level intakes countywide.
“They handle 300 (emergency) patients every week,” he told the board. “That’s 18 to 20% of emergency room volume in the county. They’re carrying the highest COVID load in the county. It’s a very busy hospital. We don’t have a lot of places to pull staff to backfill them.”