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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers begin five-day strike over health care costs and sick time

With the coronavirus pandemic as a national backdrop and health care workers being hailed as heroes, the union representing 740 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital began a five-day strike against the hospital on Monday.

Beginning at 6 a.m., as many as 200 mask-wearing hospital workers and labor allies staked out spots in front of the Montgomery Drive hospital, protesting proposed increases in employee health care costs, cuts in sick time and lack of protective equipment as they treat COVID-19 patients.

The workers, wearing red shirts and masks of their union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, lined the sidewalks, waving signs, drumming and chanting union slogans all day long. The strike is planned to run until Friday evening.

The union represents nursing assistants, radiologic technologists, pharmacy technicians, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, registrars and dietary aides at the hospital.

They were joined Monday on the picket lines by several local politicians, including Councilman Chris Rogers and county Supervisor-elect Chris Coursey.

“Especially right now during the pandemic, we need our health care workers to have what they need to be able to do their job protecting this community,” Rogers said. “A lot of them are not high-wage earners, and they’re putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us.”

Memorial is owned and operated by Providence St. Joseph Health, which operates 51 hospitals in seven states.

The NUHW contract expired 13 months ago.

Providence hired replacement workers for the week and will continue most functions uninterrupted, the hospital’s chief executive said, but will not conduct outpatient imaging services this week.

Otherwise, it’s “business as usual,” said Tyler Hedden, Memorial’s CEO.

He said the hospital’s emergency department would be fully staffed to meet emergency needs. Memorial Hospital is the North Coast’s highest-level two trauma center.

The union had planned to strike in February but postponed the work action as the coronavirus pandemic took hold throughout the country and Sonoma County. But months into it and having been out of contract more than a year, workers said they felt it was necessary to take to the streets.

“It was not an easy decision to come to,” said Steven Batson, a shop steward and an anesthesia technologist for 10 years. “But ultimately we felt it had to be our only option.”

Hospital spokesman Christian Hill said the timing is unfortunate.

“We’re disappointed that the NUHW chose to strike during the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve put a fair and generous wage and benefits offer on the table.”

Workers reject that characterization of the hospital’s latest proposal.

The hospital started with a 1.5% wage increase for each of four years ― not including the year since the previous contract expired ― and has increased that to 3% a year, according to both sides. The union initially sought 7% annual increases, retroactive to the end of the previous contract, Batson said.

“On average, we are 11% behind other hospitals in the area,” he said. “We felt that was fair to ask for.”

The union has also balked at the hospital’s proposal to increase the cost of its popular PPO health plan, with annual premiums that would rise from $1,887 per year to $4,609 by 2024, a 144% increase, Batson said.

Providence’s proposal also includes a reduction in paid time off accrual for the most senior employees, with a loss of 32 hours for those who’ve been at Memorial for 15 years or more. Those with 10 to 15 years’ seniority would lose 16 hours per year of time off.

Workers with less than five years would see increases in their paid time off, according to the union.

Hedden said most employees would accrue the same or more paid time off, and said an additional step wage increase for longtime employees would offset changes to their PTO.

Rogers, the city councilman, said Memorial has asked the city to exempt its workers from Santa Rosa’s new ordinance mandating at least two weeks of paid sick leave for companies with 500 or more employees, as well as non-governmental health care workers and first responders.

Rogers said he wrote a letter to Memorial’s CEO urging the two sides to resolve the contract dispute.

Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, who represents the area, said she intended to join workers on the picket lines later this week.

“I’m proud to support the workers of Memorial, unequivocally,” she said.

Hedden didn’t directly address the wider public sentiment for health care workers at this time, including the daily risks many are taking at work to treating coronavirus patients. Sonoma County has had 2,169 cases of the deadly disease as of Monday morning and 20 deaths.

Hedden maintained that only about half of the union workers supported the strike.

“We’re projecting a close to 50% crossover rate from the picket lines. That’s really strong. Our caregivers are with our patients,” he said. “They’re actually working for us today.”

Matthew Artz of the NUHW said that number sounded “extremely inflated,” particularly since only one shift of the hospital, about 200 union workers, had been affected by midday.

The union has also claimed that the hospital operators are not providing proper personal protective equipment, particularly N95 respirator masks. Workers have said they are being told to wear one mask all day unless it has been damaged.

Hedden said that claim was false: “We never deny a caregiver PPE. Any claim to the contrary is simply not true. Throughout our response to COVID-19 we have made sure caregivers have had access to PPE, despite global shortages.”

While Hedden called the wage and benefits package fair and in line with other hospitals — Petaluma Valley Hospital and Napa’s Queen of the Valley unions have agreed to it — workers pointed to Providence’s status as one of the wealthiest health care systems in the nation.

Providence Health System, one of the country’s largest and richest hospital chains, is sitting on nearly $12 billion in cash, which it invests to generate more than $1 billion annually, according to the New York Times.

This spring, Providence received at least $509 million in government funds meant to assist health care providers during the coronavirus pandemic. Providence, like many hospital groups, is set up as a nonprofit, which helps shield it from federal taxes on billions of dollars of income.

For oncology nursing assistant Terry Yoas, that kind of wealth at the top has clouded Memorial’s atmosphere, changing it from one of family to one that she associates with corporate greed.

“I’m Santa Rosa homegrown. I was born in Memorial,” he said. “This is really saddening for me. Santa Rosa Memorial has been the premier hospital in the county from 1950 on. When the Sisters (of Orange) had it and it was St. Joseph, you had more of the values of dignity and trust. And that’s kind of gone now since Providence has taken over.

“When we come back around to what this hospital stands for, stood for in the past, we were about compassion. We’ve lost the compass and gone for the greed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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