| The Record
FRENCH CAMP – Registered nurses who work at San Joaquin General Hospital, Public Health, county clinics and the County Jail walked off the job at 7 a.m. Wednesday and plan to stay out on strike for the next five days, according to the union that represents nearly 800 nurses in the county system.
The California Nurses Association said in a statement that after nearly two years of negotiations, San Joaquin County administration “has demonstrated an overwhelming disrespect for nurses, at and away from the bargaining table. The San Joaquin Board of Supervisors has remained silent and has not offered any support to the nurses or the community that uses county health care services.”
The nurses are upset over patient care, safe staffing and lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as county executives’ “demands for extreme contract changes.”
During a midday rally Wednesday on the lawn in front of the hospital attended by about 100 striking nurses, union official Dotty Nygard – an emergency room nurse at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital in the south county – told them:
“So when I stand before you and tell you I know your fight, I know your fight. Because your fight is our fight. And we are literally watching your struggles, and know that we are all witnessing the same struggles.”
Nygard then went on to list shared concerns among nurses including lack of PPE and critical understaffing that has nearly broken nurses, “We’ve all been there, we’ve all seen it, we’ve all been thwarted,” she said.
San Joaquin General Intensive Care Nursery registered nurse Vicki Hoge said, “Nurses overwhelmingly voted again to go out on strike because we see no other option left for us and our patients. The county needs to make the health of our patients a priority and stop this unnecessary attack against nurses.”
In response to the announced strike, the county said it is prepared to ensure patient health and safety during the entire five-day period that is expected to end by 7 a.m. Monday.
San Joaquin County has contracted for 189 California-licensed replacement nurses from HealthSource Global who are described as “experienced, qualified and highly skilled.” It is expected the hospital will continue to provide health care services to the community without interruption, according to an official statement from San Joaquin County.
The county statement urged the nurses to stop the strike and continue to negotiate. In its previous contract with the nurses that ended Dec. 31, 2018, the county statement said the nurses received a 20% wage increase and up to an additional 10% increase for 15 years of service. That statement was disputed by a union representative.
“Needless to say, it’s disappointing to have to manage a nurse’s strike during a pandemic, especially when our county has been hard hit by COVID-19,” San Joaquin General CEO David Culberson said.
“We are a small county hospital serving patients on Medicare and Medi-Cal, and our budget for wage increase proposals reflect that reality,” Culberson said.
All essential hospital departments — including the Emergency Room, Operating Room, Intensive Care Unit, Labor and Delivery, Oncology, Dialysis and Trauma — will be staffed and remain open, according to Culberson.
In addition to the staffing plan, the hospital is working to refer some patients to nearby hospitals and to reschedule elective, non-emergency surgeries that had been scheduled to take place during the strike window.
“We certainly regret the inconvenience these changes will cause for some people,” Culberson said.
The county statement did not mention the impacts at the jail, Public Health or the county clinics.
“As a county RN, I have committed to serving and caring for my community and I simply cannot allow the Board of Supervisors to erode our working conditions and our contract,” said union member Stacey Lo, a registered nurse who works in the Family Medical Center clinic. “When the county is attacking us nurses, they are directly attacking the patients and we as nurses must stand up against that, which is why I support this strike.”
Longtime community activist Nicholas Hatten, representing San Joaquin County Together, addressed the rally by starting out on a personal note, thanking both the assembled nurses and those not present for being on the front lines and taking care of several of his family members, including three who have died from COVID-19.
“All of this happened during the pandemic, and I really think it speaks to your importance. Unfortunately, our community has tunnel vision, right? So all they are thinking of right now is COVID. It is really destroying our lives and our communities.
“But the intersection of layers you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis is much greater than that. And I am here to remind our community of that,” Hatten said.
The union contends that the county is violating state staffing laws by understaffing critical care units and putting patients and nurses at risk, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. And by demanding wage cuts, that will result in high nurse turnover.
The California Nurses Association has gone so far as to file a complaint against the county with Cal/OSHA for not providing safe PPE.
The current five-day strike follows a two-day strike that occurred in March, followed by a lockout of nurses by management, according to the union. At that time, it cost the county nearly $3 million to hire temporary nurses, according to the union.
The county stated the cost of the temporary nursing workforce for the next five days will run to approximately $2.9 million.
Contact reporter Joe Goldeen at (209) 546-8278 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JoeGoldeen.