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Memorial Hospital workers to begin 5-day strike Monday

After delaying a walkout for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of health care workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital are expected to begin a five-day strike on Monday.

Workers say they are protesting a variety of issues, including proposed increases to employee health care costs, reductions in paid time off and the ongoing lack of personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

Represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, or NUHW, the 740 union employees include nursing assistants, radiologic technologists, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and dietary aides.

Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs Memorial Hospital, criticized the union for staging a strike at a time when hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients are on the rise. But one union member said workers called the strike back in February but put it off because of the pandemic.

“This was a hard decision,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia technologist who works in the surgery department. “They’re using the pandemic as a weapon to raise our health care costs.“

Tyler Hedden, Memorial Hospital’s chief executive, said in a statement Saturday the hospital’s emergency department would be fully staffed to meet emergency needs. Memorial Hospital is the North Coast’s highest-level 2 trauma center.

Hedden said a health care employment agency has been brought in to cover striking workers’ shifts. But during the strike, the hospital’s outpatient imaging services will be closed and appointments between July 20 and 24 are being rescheduled.

“We have contracted with an agency to provide highly qualified and experienced replacement caregivers to ensure uninterrupted patient care, which is standard industry practice during a strike,” Hedden said in the statement. The agency providing replacement workers requires a five-day minimum contract, he said.

Batson, a shop steward and member of the bargaining team, said hospital officials have undercut workers’ pay and benefits, particularly after St. Joseph merged with Providence Health & Services of Renton, Washington, in 2016. The combined company is a nonprofit, but the union claims it shortchanges employees and overpays management.

Union members are balking at Providence St. Joseph Health’s proposal to increase the cost of its popular PPO plan, with annual premiums going from $1,887 per year to $4,609 by 2024.

There would also be a reduction in paid sick time for employees who have worked 15 years or longer, Batson said. These workers would see 32 hours a year of paid time off removed and those with 10 to 15 years would have 16 hours a year taken, while workers with less than five years would see increases in their paid time off.

Batson said hospital officials are proposing wage increases of 3% a year over four years with no retroactive pay for the more than 12 months NUHW workers have been without a contract. The hospital initially offered a 1.5% increase annually, he said.

Hedden said the proposed wage increases are significant and competitive, and that a beginning janitor would receive more than $20 an hour with benefits. Technologists could earn four times that.

“We all want the same thing — the competitive pay and benefits package that will allow us to retain and attract the best talent to serve Sonoma County,” Hedden said.

Tammie Campbell, a radiologic technologist who is also on the union bargaining team, said it was irresponsible for the hospital to propose cutting health benefits and sick leave of those who are the front lines in the battle against the virus.

“COVID provided a worldwide lesson on the importance of staying home when you’re sick and affordable health care,” she said.

Campbell also said that while she believes Providence St. Joseph can afford to pay five days of replacement workers, she worries whether they will have the training needed to work in such a high-level trauma center.

“We work with the most acute patients in three counties,” she said.

A big issue for Campbell is the ongoing problems health care workers are having getting proper personal protective equipment, particularly N95 masks.

She said she’s being told to wear the same procedure face mask all day unless its been soiled or damaged. She said in her work she sometimes goes from one hospital department to another wearing the same mask.

“As an X-ray tech I could cover the whole hospital each day,” she said. “I might do virtually all of that in the same mask. We’re being told to wear N95 masks as long as possible.”

She said the currently shortage of PPE is a national problem that’s led to a “motley” assortment of N95 masks being used at the hospital. The types often vary and some fit certain workers well, while other do not.

“There’s a nationwide shortage of PPE that is not necessarily Providence’s fault and I get that, but that doesn’t make me safer,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Memorial Hospital is closing outpatient imaging services during a strike this week but will continue to provide imaging services to hospital patients. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the hospital’s plans. This story has also been updated to correct the name of Steve Batson, a member of the union’s bargaining team.

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