Health & Medicine

May 21, 2013

Judge allows thousands of UC medical workers to strike

A Sacramento judge Monday refused to stop a strike today by thousands of employees at the UC Davis Medical Center and four other UC hospitals – but ordered a limited number of critical care employees to stay on the job.

A Sacramento judge Monday refused to stop a strike today by thousands of employees at the UC Davis Medical Center and four other UC hospitals – but ordered a limited number of critical care employees to stay on the job.

The union for nearly 13,000 workers, including nursing assistants, pharmacists, medical technicians, operating room scrubs and other health care workers, was to begin a two-day strike at 4 a.m. today. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced the walkout of workers at the UC Davis Health System and University of California hospitals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Irvine.

The union, which is resisting demands for increases in employee pension contributions, claims the strike is about hospital staffing that has been reduced to dangerous levels. UC officials say the walkout is over an intractable contract dispute over wages and benefits.

Impacts on patients were already occurring. The UC Davis network has postponed more than 45 surgeries, including cancer procedures, and 500 radiological appointments.

UC officials said the strike, due to end at 4 a.m. Thursday, has also caused UC San Francisco to postpone five child heart surgeries and 12 pediatric chemotherapy sessions. They said UC San Diego has put off 120 procedures, from gastroenterology to spinal surgeries.

Outside UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento today, striking AFSCME members and elected officials supporting the union are due to state their case in afternoon and evening rallies, purportedly to protest system cuts affecting patient services.

"This strike is about patient safety," said Todd Stenhouse, a spokesman for the union. "The issue is chronic understaffing and reckless cost cutting."

But at a news conference Monday, Dwaine B. Duckett, the UC system's vice president for human resources, charged that "patient care is endangered" by the strike "due to a wage dispute that is primarily over pensions and benefits."

Responding to legal motions by UC officials, Sacramento Superior Court Judge David Brown on Monday agreed to bar certain critical workers – including all respiratory therapists in UC burn centers and pharmacists at UC San Francisco's California Poison Control System – from going on strike.

He also issued an order effectively codifying a pledge by the union to ensure that certain staffing levels would be maintained in pediatric and neonatal intensive care units.

UC officials said about 450 employees will be barred from striking under the judge's ruling that workers in certain critical positions cannot walk off the job "due to a substantial and imminent threat to public health safety."

But Brown also ruled that the strike by other AFSCME workers could go on. He said neither the UC system nor the state Public Employees Relations Board, which had contested the threatened work stoppage, offered "reasonable cause" to stop it.

Outside of court, both sides Monday worked to sway public opinion.

Stenhouse said the union wanted "enforceable standards" for sufficient hospital staffing to protect patients and workers. He also said union employees, whose average salary is $55,000, aren't willing to pay an increased pension share "to subsidize the oversized entitlements of top executives" of the UC system.

Duckett said "the union has come out with an incongruous message about patient care when they are preparing to go out on strike, which attacks patient care."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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