Things are getting tense in southern California, where thousands of nurses are scheduled to go on strike during the holidays. This comes as the area continues to break COVID-19 records in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many nurses and healthcare facilities to the breaking point, prompting a number of high-profile nursing strikes across the country. Some hospitals are saying they can’t afford to lose their staff during the ongoing public health crisis.
A Memo Urging Caution
The Southern California’s Nurses Union, which represents over 2,000 healthcare workers across the region, says it plans to go on strike from December 24th to January 3rd over poor working conditions and an ongoing lack of PPE, after issuing managers a 10-day strike notice. The proposed strike would include registered nurses from Riverside Community Hospital, Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, and West Hill Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles, all of which are owned by the Tennessee-based company HCA Healthcare.
However, Southern California is in the middle of one of the deadliest outbreaks in the country.
According to the Riverside Health System, the county is managing 972 COVID-19 hospitalizations, including 195 coronavirus patients in ICU beds. Local health officials say Riverside County ran out of ICU beds for both COVID-19 and non-COVID patients on Monday.
Officials are concerned that these numbers will only go up as we get closer to Christmas and the holiday season. For fear of losing staff during this crucial period, medical staff at HCA Healthcare’s Riverside Community Hospital recently sent a memo to nurses urging them not to go on strike during the holidays.
Administrators recognized their employees’ right to strike but said it would lead to irreparable damage.
The memo to nurses says:
“This stoppage in workforce comes at a very crucial time during our COVID surge. We are at an all-time critical point, and as patient advocates, our patients and community are in serious need of our team together. We, the medical staff want to urge you to reconsider the timing of your strike and the impact at this critical time in patient care.”
Dr. Steven Kim of Riverside Community Hospital said, “We felt it was important that our nurses knew how much we needed them during this time.”
Dr. Kim and his colleagues say they didn’t make this decision lightly, considering it’s rare for doctors to get involved in a dispute between a nursing union and management, but this time, things were different.
Referring to the memo, Dr. Kim says, “It is unusual, but it shows the point that this is an unusual time. It’s a critical time, and we felt so strongly that without our nursing partners, patients’ lives would be at risk undoubtedly.”
Just hours after the union announced its intention to strike, Los Robles Regional Medical Center said it’s considering closing its emergency department for transfers, ambulance traffic, and non-essential procedures, except for those suffering from a stroke or heart attack.
“We continue to accept transfers and ambulance traffic, but at this time we are holding off on non-emergent procedures as we get ready for this possible strike,” said Antonio Castelan, an HCA Healthcare spokesperson.
Nurses Push Back
As dire as the situation may be, nurses represented by the union say they have an obligation to stand up for their rights in the workplace.
Union reps accuse HCA Healthcare of rationing PPE during the pandemic, ordering nurses and providers to wear used PPE, and failing to properly test staff for the virus, according to the organization’s official press release. Several nurses represented by the union have contracted COVID-19 on the job and two have died.
Nurses are fighting back against the idea that they are the ones putting patients at risk.
“The nurses and licensed medical professionals at these HCA hospitals have overwhelming support from the doctors and other colleagues on staff. They understand that these are life and death issues, for both staff and patients,” the union said in a statement.
The union has been negotiating a new contract with HCA Healthcare since July, but they haven’t been able to reach an agreement. They say the company is the one forcing them to go on strike by creating an unsafe work environment.
“The timing of this strike, like so many of the issues the Nurses are addressing at the bargaining table, is manufactured by the employer,” the union’s statement continued. “It is unconscionable that during this pandemic, our patients and the employees who provide patient care have not been prioritized to maintain a healthy community.”
This isn’t the first time nurses have expressed their frustration with HCA Healthcare. Providers at Mission Hospital in North Carolina finally won unionization earlier this year after HCA used aggressive misinformation tactics to prevent them from joining National Nurses United, the largest nursing union in the country.
As of now, the nurses say they plan to go ahead with the strike, even if it disrupts access to care.