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Nurses See Firing as Silencing Ploy

Labor: Eighteen critical- care staff lose jobs after 'sickout' at Hollywood Presbyterian. They say it's result of speaking up.

June 29, 2002|NERISSA PACIO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center fired 18 of its critical-care nurses Friday for participating in what the hospital described as an unlawful sickout the day before the nurses' union went on strike.

Hospital officials said the nurses, who are members of Service Employees International Union Local 399, broke federal labor law by calling in sick the day before a May 24 strike. The hospital said the law prohibits such actions within 10 days of the start of a strike.

"We believe these 18 nurses took part in a premeditated action that could have put patients at risk," said Albert Greene, chief executive officer of Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. "We had more than a dozen critically ill premature infants in one of the affected units.... Luckily we were able to quickly respond."

Several of the fired nurses said their absences were not part of an organized sickout. They said Tenet Corp., which owns the hospital, has used the terminations as a tactic to silence those nurses who were the most vocal in criticizing low staffing levels.

The union represents 500 nurses at the hospital. A small number of them, along with some other hospital employees represented by Local 399, struck for four days in May after their contract expired and again for four days this month. Negotiations have been suspended. Union members rejected the hospital's final offer of an 11% raise over three years and better health benefits. Union members are asking for a one-year pact with a 7% raise and a more affordable health-insurance package.

One of the fired nurses, Asuncion Sommer, who said she had worked at the hospital for 25 years, said she had complained about staffing levels in hospital meetings. "These patients need constant care, so I spoke up," said Sommer, who works in the cardiac intensive-care unit.

Sommer said her photo has now been added to a poster of employees who have been banned from the hospital.

The nurses said veteran nurses who are familiar with the hospital's computer systems and supplies have been replaced with out-of-state nurses who are not as qualified.

Greene said all replacement nurses are licensed in California and must attend orientation sessions to familiarize themselves with the hospital before they begin work.

The 18 terminated nurses were among 27 whom the hospital suspended for failing to show up for their shifts the day before the May 24 strike. Five of those nurses were allowed to resume work after the hospital found they had not taken part in the sickout. Three others have resigned and one remains suspended, Greene said.

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