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Petaluma Valley Hospital workers strike for 1 day

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Dozens of union medical technicians and other support staff spent Wednesday picketing in front of Petaluma Valley Hospital on North McDowell Boulevard as part of a one-day strike to demand better wages and benefits.

The strike comes after stalled negotiations with St. Joseph Health, which operates both Petaluma Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals. Contract talks between St. Joseph Health and the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 160 workers at Petaluma Valley Hospital, started in May. The union said the system is offering its membership — which includes nearly all staff at the hospital except for physicians, nurses and administration staff — inadequate wages and benefits.

The strike began at 6 a.m. and peaked at about 11 a.m., when at least 100 employees marched on the picket line Wednesday, said union staff member Vanessa Coe.

“We’re all here for one cause,” said Jonathan Velasco, a cook in the hospital’s cafeteria.

The strike didn’t affect patient care because the hospital hired temporary workers from a replacement company to mitigate reduced staffing levels, said Tyler Hedden, interim CEO of St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County.

The union alleged in a statement that the hospital was retaliating against the strike by preventing employees from returning to work for up to five days, describing the move as a lockout by St. Joseph. Hedden said the company the hospital contracted with to hire temporary workers during the strike requires a minimum commitment of five days.

Hedden did not elaborate on what would happen if a union member tried to return to work Thursday.

Some specialized services, including mammography and DEXA scanning, were unavailable Wednesday. Those appointments were rescheduled because the hospital did not have employees with the sufficient skill set to staff those departments, Hedden said.

The union is requesting a pay raise over three years, claiming that current wages don’t match the high cost of living in Sonoma County. While it originally requested a 7% pay raise each year, it is willing to reduce that request to 5% or 6%, Coe said. St. Joseph Health has proposed a 2.5% raise each year.

“No one can afford to live here,” said Ruth Ann Balicki, a hospital sonographer and a member of the bargaining team. “That’s just not acceptable.”

Coe said St. Joseph Health is trying to restrict employees’ health care so it will only cover treatment at their facilities. She also said that while the system has proposed increasing the number of paid vacation days for new employees, it is considering reducing vacation days for staff members who have worked at the hospital for more than 10 years.

Hedden declined to comment on the details of the hospital’s negotiations with the union, but said St. Joseph is “looking for ways to be more efficient with our care,” which could include narrowing the network of physicians that employees can use. He added that a reduction in paid time off for some employees is “something that is on the table,” and that the benefits plan was accepted by the union’s counterpart in Southern California.

“We’re offering competitive wage and benefits,” Hedden said. “We’re hopeful that we get back to the table … and can get a deal signed that is beneficial for both our caregivers and our hospital and the community.”

The union is also concerned about mold that was found in some parts of the hospital over the summer, which forced management to close the labor and delivery unit. St. Joseph Health found that the areas affected by the mold are “a result of a series of isolated and independent issues that are not systemic in nature,” Christian Hill, a St. Joseph spokesperson, said in an email.

At Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, medical staff represented by the union held an informational picket on the sidewalk in front of the hospital. The action was not a strike but attracted several hundred hospital workers from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to show support for striking workers in Petaluma.

Three more bargaining sessions are scheduled before the end of the year, Coe said. The first is set for Tuesday.

“We hope that they come to the table with something fair,” Coe said of St. Joseph Health. “We don’t want to keep striking. People want to be in the hospital with their patients.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report.

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