Hospital Workers Protest Cutbacks





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Health care workers at Berkeley's Alta Bates Medical Center joined approximately 4,000 union employees in picketing outside nine Bay Area hospitals yesterday.

The service employees union, which represents Alta Bates' employees, is in the middle of contract negotiations with the hospitals. Workers said they are protesting staff cutbacks, low wages and inadequate patient care.

In an effort to jump-start negotiations, workers walked out of hospitals for a one-day strike, which started at 6 a.m. yesterday. Strikers, including housekeepers and vocational nurses, targeted Catholic Healthcare West and Sutter Health, which owns Alta Bates, and two independently owned hospitals in the Bay Area.

Just outside the Alta Bates Medical Center on Ashby Avenue, nearly 90 health care workers picketed with signs that read, "Patient Care First, It Could Be You" and "Down With Sutter's Greed, Up With Registered Nurses' Rights."

But hospital management accused the union of jeopardizing their patients' health in an unjustified walkout. In a full page ad in The San Francisco Examiner, the California Health Care Association called the union "reckless and irresponsible" and said their one-day strike created a "public health crisis."

"The union is risking the safety of thousands of patients over its demands for what amounts to guaranteed lifetime jobs," the advertisement stated.

Hospital officials did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Workers, however, responded that their walkout was designed precisely to make patients more of a priority.

"I am not happy about abandoning my patients, but we believe it is necessary to strike for one day so that we can make sure that we don't have to abandon them for longer than one day," said Beverly Griffith, a linen distributor who has worked for Summit Medical Center in Oakland for 22 years.

Fola Afariogun, a "care associate" at Alta Bates, said managers did not take their concerns seriously.

"We feel we should have a say in staffing and they are telling us no," he said. "We used to have a lift team, people who lift heavy patients - they got rid of them and now we have to do it ourselves. This increases the injuries on the job."

One of the workers' most pressing concerns is to end mandatory overtime. Workers said this practice forces them to care for patients even when they are too tired to do so.

"We are striking because they want us to do mandatory overtime and we see that as jeopardizing patient care," said Afariogun. "What can I do after eight hours? I'm burnt out and I want to go home."

Union representative Brent Harland said the strike also aimed to demonstrate that health management organizations have not lived up to Kaiser Permanente's quality standards. The union wants all 10 hospitals to match Kaiser's wages and contract provisions.

"Kaiser is one of the oldest HMOs in the country," he said. "They virtually invented the HMO, and all the other hospitals have taken the concept of an HMO and put a slanted twist on it. They have taken out-patient care and replaced it with profits."

In anticipation of the strike, hospitals halted all elective care surgery and stopped accepting non-emergency transfers.

A patient on her way back from a doctor's appointment said that, despite the fact that the strike created hardships for the hospital staff, health care workers had a right to voice their grievances. She asked to remain anonymous.

"The shouting and the placards are not a pleasant sight for an onlooker," she said. "Anything like that is distressing, but if it's just for a day and there is no violence it's okay."

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