Striking nurses waving signs and shouting slogans took up positions outside hospitals in Oxnard and Camarillo at dawn Thursday, after failing to reach a deal with management over pay and staffing problems they say threaten patient safety.
They were part of a statewide strike at 18 hospitals by health-care workers who were calling on management to add more nurses and support employees so that patient care does not suffer.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 16, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Strike participants--A story in Friday's Times said nurses were on strike at 16 Bay Area hospitals. The striking employees were not nurses but respiratory therapists, nursing assistants and housekeepers.
Under heavy clouds, about 100 nurses at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard massed at Gonzales Road and Rose Avenue and shouted: "What do we want? Safer staffing! When do we want it? Now!"
Hospital administrators said the strike in Ventura County had not disrupted operations, and that it appeared medical care was being provided as usual at the Oxnard facility. Replacement nurses filled in for strikers, three surgeries were done, and the emergency and intensive care units were fully staffed, St. John's officials said. Only the outpatient surgery center was closed, officials said.
Several babies were transferred out of a neonatal intensive care wing before the strike began, but a visit to the ward Thursday morning showed it was up and ready to receive tiny patients.
"We are completely staffed," St. John's Administrator Charles Padilla said.
Locally, union officials estimated that more than 300 of the 325 nurses scheduled to work at St. John's and its sister hospital, St. John's Pleasant Valley in Camarillo, did not show up Thursday. However, a few staff nurses crossed the picket lines.
At one San Francisco hospital, 50 protesters braved a cold morning drizzle, chanting, "Up with patients! Down with bosses!"
The Bay Area strike at 16 hospitals was a 24-hour walkout, while the strike at the Ventura County hospitals, both owned by Catholic Healthcare West, is scheduled to continue for two weeks.
Catholic Healthcare West owns three of the striking hospitals in the Bay Area. Sutter Health owns nine, Tenet Healthcare Corp. two and Prison Health Services two.
The Bay Area hospitals have held a series of 24-hour strikes since July to protest staffing and other issues. The walkout there was joined by 5,000 respiratory therapists, nursing assistants and housekeepers.
In Ventura County, management flew in about 150 nurses from Denver-based U. S. Nursing Corp., and is paying them between $35 and $50 an hour to fill in for strikers. The contract nurses arrived at the back of the Oxnard and Camarillo hospitals in vans and buses with the windows taped to prevent anyone from identifying them. Striking nurses stood nearby, watching for "scab nurses" and waved their signs each time a van pulled in.
Padilla said the administration is ready to resume negotiations Monday with Local 399 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the nurses.
The strike's greatest impact could be on the hospitals' bottom line, he said.
The strike could cost the hospitals in Oxnard and Camarillo up to $1 million in extra labor costs, the administrator said.
The Ventura County hospitals have offered the nurses an increase of up to 11%, a hike that would bring them in line with pay at another private regional hospital to about $18.50 per hour for inexperienced nurses to $29 per hour for veterans. But union leaders are now focusing on staffing levels, saying nurses are spread so thin that patient care is endangered.
A solution to that issue, which nurses say caused the strike, seems as far off as ever.
Padilla said there is a national nursing shortage and that St. John's is not immune. Sometimes nurses are overwhelmed by patients and other times they aren't, he said.
"I think the staffing is very appropriate. It looks to me that they are hellbent on striking," he said. "At first, they said it was all about money, and now it's about staffing. It's a moving target."
Strikers say the local hospitals have never talked seriously about increasing the ratio of nurses assigned to each patient. Many said they had sometimes seen patients waiting hours to see a nurse. Some said they were given 10 patients per shift, a level they say is excessive.
"We want to have a say on how the units are staffed," said Janet Brown, a nurse who is part of the union negotiating committee. "They fear losing some power over us."
Stephanie Lara-Jenkins, an emergency room nurse in Oxnard, said she can't believe that the situation has spiraled into a strike.
"I know they have the money," she said of the hospital. "I can't imagine how stupid they would be not to settle this."
Florence LaFemina and Norma Dalton, who work in the intensive care unit at St. John's in Oxnard, stayed on the job.
Dalton said the union had caused irreparable damage to relationships inside the hospital and tarnished its reputation.
"Patients now are coming in assuming they will get bad care," LaFemina said. "They are much more defensive than they used to be."
At St. John's Pleasant Valley, striking nurses rushed to help at a two-car crash on nearby Los Posas Road. A second crash occurred moments later.
One driver was taken to the St. John's Pleasant Valley emergency room, complaining of chest pains. The other wasn't injured.
"We're not on strike from our community duties," said Valeri Stallings, one of the more than 30 striking nurses near the crash site. "We're just on strike from our facility."
Times staff writer John Glionna and correspondent Gail Davis contributed to this story.