Hospital workers strike, says management using pandemic against them

Monday marked the first day of a week-long hospital strike in the North Bay. 

Hundreds of workers lined the sidewalk in front of Santa Rosa's Memorial Hospital, banging drums, chanting, and waving signs. 

Motorists on Montgomery Drive added to the din, honking horns in support.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers represents nursing assistants, radiology and pharmacy technicians, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, and other service employees. 

Workers say the timing of the strike, in the shadow of a pandemic, was unavoidable.  

"We put ourselves on the front lines every day," said Taylor Davison, a registration clerk in the Emergency Department. 

Their contract expired a year ago, and the strike was scheduled several months ago, but delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Now felt right because the management team is using the pandemic against us to make sure we stay in our jobs," said Davison. 

"Yet they're not doing anything to protect us."

Amid issues of wages, paid time-off, and rising health care premiums, workers also say they are scrounging and re-using protective masks.   

"And if we don't get the proper PPE and we don't have sick-time, we can't be here to take care of our patients and that's really important," said Lauren Rivera, a radiology technician.

Hospital management denies N-95 masks are withheld from staff. 

"That simply is not true, " said Tyler Hedden, CEO of St. Joseph Health Sonoma County. "We do insure that we preserve and are judicious with the use of our N-95's," added Hedden. 

"But you can use it a couple of times and then throw it away."

Hedden notes, purchasing PPE  is partly why Memorial's parent company Providence St. Joseph Health received $500 million in federal COVID assistance. 

The pandemic has also cut revenue from elective surgery and increased costs caring for the newly unemployed.  

"We are going to be impacted in our business operations from people losing their health insurance," said Hedden. 

"We feel that we have made the union a very competitive offer." 
Memorial is Santa Rosa's oldest hospital and the region's trauma center. 

Temporary replacements have been hired for the week, and Hedden says only about hhalf the eligible workers are actually taking partin the work-stoppage. 

The union puts participation higher, but acknowledges hardship.

"Some have a family and they are the sole provider," said Steve Baton, an anesthesia technician. 

A GoFundMe has been set up to raise money to help blunt a week without pay. 

"I understand that it's very difficult, and it's very expensive to live here in Sonoma County," said Batson. 

Monday afternoon, a respiratory therapist paused on his way out of the hospital. 

"It's a give and take and you don't get whatever you want in negotiation," said Shawn Chao, who has chosen to remain on the job during the strike. 

"It's the right thing to do but the wrong timing because we are at the peak of the pandemic right now in the county."

Memorial Hospital has a tented surge area should COVID-19 cases need overflow space, but it has remained empty.  

Management distributed a flyer in recent days, urging workers to reject the strike, and threatening to revoke the current contract offer if they did not. 

But the walkout went on as planned, and is not expected to end until Friday evening.