In T-shirts and hospital scrubs, about 100 employees of the failing San Diego General Hospital hauled signs in front of the Southeast San Diego facility Wednesday in an attempt to drum up community support for the hospital.
The effort came five days after most of them were laid off and three weeks after the last time many of them saw a paycheck.
The laid-off workers and a few community representatives marched in a circle in front of the hospital's main entrance, 446 26th St. They waved cardboard signs and occasionally chanted their support for the hospital and the mostly poor people it served until its closure last Saturday.
The hospital is the only one in Southeast San Diego. Its last patients were transferred Saturday and its license suspended because of problems in paying back taxes, in meeting payroll and repaying debts to vendors.
The theme at the rally was alternately aggressive, pleading and critical of the for-profit company that has run the hospital for nearly two years:
"San Diego--would you allow Children's (Hospital) to close? There are children here too," said one placard.
"\o7 Ayudanos a salvar el hospital, por favor\f7 (Please help us save the hospital)," pleaded another, carried by an elderly Latina.
"The issue is needy, not greedy," concluded a sign that someone had taped to the hospital's former signboard.
In interviews, the former employees made it clear that they had made personal sacrifices to work at San Diego General because they cared about the poor, but didn't feel the hospital's owners had done the same.
"They basically ran this hospital into the ground, and the people in the community are suffering," said Kevin Holloway, an emergency room nurse there for several years.
Owner and administrator Benjamin Davis Jr., who watched the march from nearby, denied persistent allegations in the community that he and business partner John Motte had profited at the hospital's expense.
He said he had to take a $400,000 second mortgage on his Coronado house to buy the hospital, and so stands to lose the house if there is a foreclosure.
But Davis didn't get much sympathy from about a dozen former employees who confronted him and a hospital consultant, Norm Martin, in a corridor after the rally to ask about their paychecks.
"Some people were paid on Friday, but most people were not. We were promised that by this week, Monday or Tuesday, we would be paid. That has not been seen yet," said Monica Gwinner, who was director of social services at San Diego General.
"How come everybody comes out smelling like a rose but us?" someone yelled in the heat of the discussion.
Ignacia Castaneda balanced her 8 1/2-month-old son, Carlos, on her hip as she waved a paper at Davis and Martin. It was the notice that a Chula Vista hospital is sending her account out to bill collectors. San Diego General had not paid employee health insurance premiums, so Castaneda's $1,200 hospital bill for Carlos' birth remains unpaid, Gwinner explained.
Martin told the employees that their paychecks were supposed to have been covered on Tuesday by Medi-Cal reimbursements from the state. However, the state notified the hospital that it was sequestering the money instead in a trust fund, Martin said.
But a spokesman for the state Department of Health Services said that was not the case.
"The Medi-Cal reimbursement check customarily goes out on Thursday. It will be going out tomorrow as standard practice, released by the state controller's office," said spokesman Ken August.
Gwinner said employees not only are concerned about their overdue paychecks, but also fear they will lose all their accumulated sick pay and vacation pay. Even unemployment insurance premiums went unpaid as the hospital's financial picture deteriorated, so many laid-off employees can't collect benefits, Gwinner said.
"There are people here who have accrued 200, 300 hours of paid time off, and they might lose that," Gwinner said. "You have a panic situation now, because we're afraid they're going to close and we're going to be out our money."
At the rally, City Councilman Bob Filner said the city has a responsibility to try to salvage the hospital.
"The city and the county and the state have opted out, and we have to opt back in," Filner said. "We have to figure out a solution that says that this community needs this hospital, and we're going to find a way to keep it open. If it has to be public, so be it."
The Rev. George Stevens, a community activist and a declared City Council candidate in Councilman Wes Pratt's district, called strongly for converting San Diego General to a government-run hospital for the poor. He suggested using existing tax revenues, such as the city hotel-motel tax, to subsidize it.
Both he and Filner urged the crowd to stay organized and make themselves heard.