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Highland Hospital in Oakland is currently undergoing retrofitting to meet seismic safety standards.

Highland Hospital nurses go on strike during long-running labor dispute

on October 7, 2020

Nurses and healthcare workers at Highland Hospital in Oakland, joined by nurses at two other hospitals in Alameda county, will go on strike for five days beginning Wednesday, Oct. 7, to protest what they’re calling unfair labor practices by the Alameda Health System (AHS) management.

Nurses cited concerns over patient safety, a contract dispute with management and persistent staffing shortages that threaten the quality of care, according to a press release from SEIU 1021, which represents nurses and other workers at Highland Hospital.

“AHS has done our best to keep these deliberations at the bargaining table,” AHS CEO Delvecchio Finley said in a memo sent to AHS staff ahead of the strike. “However, both SEIU and CNA have ended these talks and are increasingly sharing AHS proposals publicly and often in ways that distort the actual proposals and the overall goals of the organization.”

The AHS is a public safety-net hospital system, meaning it is legally obliged to provide care regardless of an individual’s insurance status or ability to pay. A majority of its clients are Black and Latino. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors appoints a Board of Trustees to administer AHS, but AHS is a separate legal entity from the county itself. 

During the strike, facilities in the Alameda Health System will limit services like “prenatal care, skilled nursing care, flu vaccinations and COVID testing” according to a press release from AHS. Roughly 80 nurses across the system will cross the picket line to maintain critical services for patients while more than 3,325 healthcare workers and nurses take part in the strike.

The strike comes as negotiations between the AHS and SEIU 1021, which represents 3,000 healthcare workers in the system, dragged on into its tenth month. Negotiations between AHS and the California Nurses Association, which represents 325 nurses at two other hospitals in the system, have gone for two years without resolution. 

“Our patients are waiting too long for appointments,” ER nurse and SEIU local chapter president John Pearson said during a meeting of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. “They’re not receiving the basic resources they need. The infrastructure is very literally falling apart. There are, not exaggerating, holes in the walls.”

AHS has laid off emergency room staff in the middle of the pandemic. Hospitals lack proper isolation rooms for COVID-19 patients, and nurses continue to face shortages of personal protective equipment, according to a union press release.

“[Alameda Health Systems] is in chaos,” Highland Hospital nurse Felix Thomson said during the meeting. “Our patients don’t get the care they need. They face endless waiting times and inadequate cleaning crews due to ill-conceived layoffs.”

Molly Stuart, a Highland Hospital patient said during the meeting that she’s waited long hours for treatment. “I’ve seen fellow patients in much worse condition suffer because of the understaffing at Highland.”

The strike is the latest in an on-going saga of crisis for the health system. A 2014 Alameda County Grand Jury Report cited a “lack of leadership and scrutiny on the part of the AHS board of trustees and lack of oversight by the county board of supervisors contributed to the financial problems at AHS.”

But the health system’s leadership says the problems AHS faces are because the system is underfunded and under-resourced by the county. In his statement to the Board of Supervisors, AHS CEO Delvecchio Finley called on the county to increase support for the health system. The AHS currently owes Alameda county more than $100 million for a bailout dating back to the 1990s. 

“A strike is egregious, unnecessary and harmful to our community,” Finley said. “AHS offered modest increases in exchange for some limited contract changes and SEIU declined.”

Supervisor Scott Haggerty suggested the Board of Supervisors should pursue a new governance structure that would give the board more authority over the public health system. 

“The buck stops at the Board of Supervisors,” Haggerty said. “And if we’re going to get dragged into these fights and we’re going to have to be the ones that settle or work to settle them, then we might as well be at the table, from the very beginning.”

Supervisor Nate Miley agreed that the strike signals a more fundamental problem with how AHS is governed.

“With a strike, all this is doing is putting a crisis on top of a crisis, on top of a crisis, on top of a crisis,” Miley said. “Some type of change needs to take place because the model we have is not working.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors expects a decision around a new governance model to be complete by early 2021, according to Supervisor Wilma Chan. 

“We’re definitely working on that, but I think in my point of view, the strike could have been avoided,” Chan said. “I think there’s a basic lack of understanding by the AHS leadership on how to bargain with public unions.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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