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UC hospitals cancel surgeries, divert patients amid strike

The walkout by patient care workers shuts down some services at medical centers in L.A., Irvine, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento.

May 21, 2013|By Anna Gorman and Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Enrique Padilla, 50, of Chatsworth, at center, joins other striking healthcare workers demonstrating in front of UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center.
Enrique Padilla, 50, of Chatsworth, at center, joins other striking healthcare… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

A strike by University of California patient care workers Tuesday caused the cancellation of hundreds of surgeries, the closure of laboratory stations and the diversion of emergency room patients, officials said.

The hospitals prepared for the two-day strike by postponing elective surgeries and hiring temporary workers, but services still were affected after thousands of employees took to the picket line at the medical centers in Los Angeles, Irvine, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, where the UC Davis facility is located.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union leaders said they staged the strike because of concerns over staffing levels, pension changes and patient safety. UC officials defended their safety record and said they have offered a fair contract to union members. The two sides have been negotiating for nearly a year.

At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, hundreds of workers wore matching green shirts and carried noisemakers and whistles. As they walked in a circle outside the hospital, they chanted, "All day, all night, safe staffing is our right!"

Cecilia Calvillo, who works as a mammogram technician, said she participated in the strike to demand better staffing. Calvillo said she has to rush from one patient to another and frequently can't give them the time and attention they deserve.

"When you don't have what you need staffing-wise, these patients don't get what they need," she said.

Certified nursing assistant Sara Tyhurst said that she has seen her responsibilities and patient load multiply in her 15 years at the medical center — while her income largely has stayed the same. Tyhurst said she takes care of 13 patients at a time and does the equivalent of three different jobs.

"It's unfair that we give [the hospital] all we've got," she said. "They don't give us anything in return."

Despite calls for all union members to strike, many came to work anyway, said Tom Rosenthal, UCLA Medical Center's chief medical officer. "Many people chose to put their patients first."

Rosenthal hired about 400 replacement workers and redeployed about 150 workers to other areas of the hospital. Those on strike included respiratory therapists, pharmacy technicians and nursing assistants. The trauma center and emergency room were running as usual, but there were some minor delays around the hospital, Rosenthal said.

Ester Rivera drove from Bakersfield to UCLA so her 85-year-old mother could have a pelvic ultrasound, but the she wasn't able to have the scan. She did have a few other scheduled tests, which took nearly five hours to complete. "It's sort of frustrating," she said. "Now we have to come back."

Patient care at other hospitals also was affected by the strike.

UC Irvine Medical Center limited the number of transfers from community hospitals and diverted ambulances from its emergency room unless they were bringing in burn or trauma patients. About 75 surgeries were postponed. The hospital also saw a number of union members show up for work despite the walkout, spokesman John Murray said.

At UC San Francisco Medical Center, about 150 surgeries were canceled and an additional 100 patients didn't receive scheduled chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants and other procedures. The medical center closed its outpatient radiology services and diverted ambulances from the ER.

Patients remaining at the hospital were offered ear plugs and in-room music Tuesday morning to help block out the sounds of the demonstration: chants, bullhorns and clacking noisemakers.

Starting early Tuesday, a couple of hundred AFSCME workers and members of other sympathetic unions marched in front of UCSF medical center in the chilly morning breeze. Their signs urged "Fair Wages" and "Retirement Security."

A union leader with a bullhorn shouted: "What's this about?" The demonstrators chanted in response, "Patient care!" A nearby food truck sold lattes and espressos.

Greg Leggett, a senior custodian, said he was striking because he was worried about his own healthcare, his retirement and what he sees as inequity in the pay system between managers and workers.

"One of our major problems is management at the top," said Leggett, an AFSCME member. "They get the raises, but they want to delete from the bottom. I worry about how this will be for those coming behind us. This used to be a great place to work, where you can retire from. That's questionable now."

UCSF officials said the union workers were more concerned about their pensions than patient safety.

"I would say that staffing levels are not the primary issue. It's around the pension," said Sheila Antrum, chief nursing officer at UCSF Medical Center.

Mark Hayman-Martinez, a union member and patient care assistant in the pediatric intensive care unit, came in to work on his day off because he said he thinks the strike is a "bad idea."

"I'm not going to affect patient care or make patients nervous over the small stuff," Hayman-Martinez said during his Tuesday morning shift. "These are parents who just found out their kid has a brain tumor. They don't need to worry more."

Gorman reported from Los Angeles and La Ganga from San Francisco.

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