BAY AREA: 3,400 Hospital Workers Walk Out
With talks breaking down between the Service Employees International Union Local 250 and managers from eight hospitals owned by Catholic Healthcare West and Sutter Health, about 3,400 hospital workers went on strike this morning ( AP/San Jose Mercury News, 8/2). CHW "left the bargaining table Thursday," while Sutter walked out late last night, missing the 6 a.m. Wednesday deadline to reach an agreement with the union, which represents technicians, licensed vocational nurses, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and clerks (Valles, AP/San Diego Union Tribune, 8/1). The Bay Area is no stranger to SEIU Local 250 strikes; last month, 4,000 hospital workers staged a one-day strike. And, while the hospital workers were preparing to strike this morning, many of the 1,730 registered nurses at Stanford today returned to their jobs after a 51-day strike. SEIU Local 250 spokesperson Christy Hawkins said, "After the first strike, workers called on management to get serious about contracts that would protect quality patient care. They haven't done that, so the workers are forced to strike again." The union is asking for pay raises and power in setting "safe staffing" levels. But hospital officials called the union's message of wanting to protect patients a "smoke screen." Hospital managers have argued that "what the union really wants" is more job security, as workers could be laid off or given fewer hours when there are fewer patients. The hospitals have prepared for the strike by hiring replacement workers and canceling some elective procedures. Cassandra Phelps, spokesperson for Eden Medical Center said, "We have a hospital to run, and we're not going to let this strike stop us from doing what we have to do, which is provide patient care" (Feder, Knight-Ridder/San Jose Mercury News, 8/2).
Could CHW Be Hurt?
But the San Francisco Chronicle reports both labor and insurer conflicts are likely to have a negative impact on "financially troubled" CHW, which attributed operating losses in excess of $310 million for fiscal year 1999 to declining reimbursement rates. Negotiations with the labor union broke down last week, and Blue Cross cancelled its talks with CHW earlier this week, angered by newspaper ads the chain ran over the weekend warning patients that out-of-pocket costs will escalate if an agreement is not reached. The Chronicle notes a "history of tension" between the hospital system and the insurer, citing newspaper ads run during the organizations' last negotiations in 1998. In June, CHW sued Blue Cross for $50 million in unpaid bills, but the insurer contends that the health system's losses resulted from too-rapid expansion and says it does not want to "foot part of that bill" (St. John, 8/2).