Striking health care workers at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank hit the picket lines for five straight days this week in their planned walkout, which ended Friday. The union’s protests drew criticism from Providence management for what hospital officials said was excessive noise near patients.
Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West were set to return to work today. A representative from SEUI-UHW said while the union is hopeful their message was heard, they may return to the picket lines if future negotiations fail. Both sides said they are ready to return to the bargaining table, though no dates were set as of Friday.
Earlier this week, representatives from the SEUI-UHW claimed that hospital management engaged in bad faith bargaining and other illegal tactics, including silencing workers. The contract for non-nursing workers expired in August. The most recent bargaining session took place Oct. 13.
The hospital alleged throughout the week that excessive noise from striking workers created safety hazards for patients.
For a second straight day Tuesday, the hospital issued a statement critical of the pickets’ noise level, and added that the protesters were contributing to safety issues. Then on Thursday, Providence issued a press statement alleging that protesters “stormed toward the hospital’s front doors, intimidating and frightening patients and visitors.”
“This is not acceptable,” said Karl Keeler, chief executive of Providence Saint Joseph. “The police have asked the picketers to tone down their actions, but they have not done so. This is not the way we at Providence settle our differences.”
Union officials issued a rebuttal to management’s claims of noise and safety complaints. SEIU-UHW spokeswoman Renée Saldaña said, “There are lots of frontline caregivers who can speak to how Providence’s staffing is putting patients at risk, and we aren’t going to play into their desperate attempts to divert from that.”
“The strike is being caused by Providence’s unfair labor practices, its failure to invest in caregivers, and the chronic short staffing that undermines quality care every day,” Saldaña said. “Providence is attempting to silence health care workers, so they don’t speak out about the unsafe conditions they witness at work. The real issue is about not having enough staff to be there for patients when they are needed, maintaining a sanitary work environment and providing life-sustaining care.”
Providence management also criticized workers for blocking the main circular driveway to the hospital.
“One car blocked an ambulance while delivering coffee to protesters. In other instances, protesters in the main driveway prevented an ambulance attempting to transport a patient who waited 30 minutes on a gurney in the lobby, and a Burbank Fire Department rescue squad reported picketers in the street created a hazard.”
The hospital statement went on to say that nurse leaders in the emergency department, intensive care unit, NICU, maternity and other departments “are concerned for their patients and visitors, some we fear will feel intimidated trying to enter our hospital for care or to see their critically ill family members.”
“If Providence wants to end the strike, it should stop its unfair labor practices and resume negotiations immediately to stop the Providence short-staffing crisis,” Saldaña added. “SEIU-UHW members are committed to delivering the best care to the communities we serve. Frontline health care workers are ready, and we won’t be silenced.”
SEIU-UHW represents the 700 non-nursing health care workers who are staging the walkout.
The unfair labor practices strike — which is the latest to hit a Southland hospital in recent weeks — involves what the union says are bad faith bargaining and other illegal tactics.
It began Monday after what the hospital said was “our best efforts to engage in meaningful dialogue at the bargaining table,” along with the offer of “significant wage increases.”
“The union has offered unrealistic counterproposals in response and has chosen to strike instead of [continuing] with good-faith negotiations,” the hospital statement said.
Striking employees include lab technicians, phlebotomists, emergency medical technicians, patient transporters, custodial workers and others, but not nurses. Providence said it had contracted with replacement workers to fill in for striking union members.
Specific union concerns, according to an SEIU-UHW statement, include “longstanding issues of understaffing, worker turnover and patient care concerns,” in addition to the desire for better wages.
The union, which gave a 10-day notice last week of its intended strike, said it is taking the “last resort” action after months of bargaining.
An SEIU-UHW spokeswoman, Maria Leal, said contract talks broke off after the last bargaining session on Oct. 13. The union’s contract expired on Aug. 5, and both sides began talks in June, Leal said.
“We are being intimidated and threatened for wanting to improve our hospital, while Providence executives bargain in bad faith over solutions to our short-staffing crisis,” Christian Ayon, a lead surgical technician at Providence Saint Joseph, said in a statement released by the union.
Providence officials said Sunday that they have offered the union “what we believe is a very generous package with significant wage increases” — including a 24% wage increase over a three-year contract and market wage adjustments for many jobs.
Addressing the union’s charge that patient care has suffered, the hospital statement countered: “If there are incidents of unsafe conditions or poor-quality care, the law requires that they be reported and investigated by the appropriate government agencies. That has not happened. In fact, just three months ago, the U.S. agency that oversees hospital quality ranked Providence Saint Joseph among the top 17.3% in the nation for overall quality.”
The Providence statement went on to say, “The union has also accused hospital management of engaging in bad faith bargaining and other illegal tactics, including silencing workers. Providence Saint Joseph is committed to respectful discourse and urges caregivers to report concerns in a variety of ways, including via an anonymous integrity hotline.”
Providence acknowledged high turnover rates since the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials said they “have aggressively recruited and continue to do so, providing bonuses to caregivers who refer qualified candidates and to those hired in certain positions.”
The Providence strike follows a three-day walkout over many of the same issues by some 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in several states, including California, from Oct. 4-6. The sides in that dispute announced a tentative four-year agreement on Oct. 13. Workers at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood also walked off the job for five days from Oct. 9-13.
— City News Service contributed to this report.
First published in the October 28 print issue of the Burbank Leader.