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Friday, May 23, 2014

Nurses Make Strike Threat, Claim Unsafe Conditions

Posted By on Fri, May 23, 2014 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge Ready to strike?
  • Ready to strike?

As the negotiating battle rages on between the San Francisco Department of Public Health and its nurses, a medic or two may soon be necessary. 

The nurses today threatened to hold a strike vote in early June that could take effect as soon as July. But that's not all: It's been a busy day and it's not even 11 a.m. The nurses also filed an Unfair Labor Practices Charge with the state Public Employee Relations Board and released a union-generated white paper that "details the culture of mismanagement at DPH." 

Bargaining between the city and the SEIU 1021 is slated to continue through Wednesday and, it seems, the time for mere palliative care has concluded: "If they don't compromise about staffing, we'll take a strike vote," nurse Lorraine Thiebaud, the president of the San Francisco General Hospital nurse's union, tells SF Weekly

Today's brief white paper -- which you can read here -- is self-categorized as "a public warning." It carries the eye-opening title "Empty Scrubs and Overflowing Beds," which does not make for pleasant mental imagery.

But this does not make for pleasant reading. Among its most salient claims: 

  • The Department of Public Health is carrying 235 fewer nurses than it's budgeted for (1,175 full-time equivalent positions instead of 1,410); 

  • This, the nurses continue, is the case, despite DPH being on pace to finish the fiscal year $46.3 million in the black -- with $26 million of that bulge coming from General Hospital; 

  • General Hospital's Emergency Room diversion rate -- the percentage of time essentially everyone but the very worst cases is sent elsewhere -- was 43 percent in 2013, roughly double the 2012 rate. 

The upshot: "Patients who enter our facilities receive a level of care that we frequently do not consider safe. The main reason is that there are not enough nurses and other hospital staff to care for them in their most vulnerable hours." 

In a theatrical touch, nurses this week delivered the mayor's office 235 empty scrubs, representing the unfilled, budgeted positions. (The symbolic delivery was left with a mayoral aide; it is unknown what the mayor's office opted to do with 235 sets of highly specialized clothing).  

Calls to DPH spokeswoman Rachael Kagan and the mayor's office have not yet been returned. Kagan, in the past, has told us that hospital staffing is "adequate."  

Update, 4:10 p.m.: Kagan sent the following statement our way. Christine Falvey, the mayor's spokeswoman, says Lee's office has "asked General Hospital to get back to you on staffing issues.": 

San Francisco General is a safe, high quality hospital.

We agree with our nurses that staffing is key to patient and staff safety. That is true for every hospital, and we take it very seriously.

We do have vacancies, and we are working hard to fill them. The hiring process can be challenging because of city rules, and we are working together to resolve those issues, which apply to several positions in departments city-wide. Meanwhile, we have other options, including using on-call nurses and registry nurses - options that all hospitals use. Consequently, open positions don't equate to short staffing. We assess and adjust staffing levels every day, which is standard practice in operating a hospital. 

Right now, this union is bargaining for a new contract. They are at the table today. There are many issues being discussed there -- staffing, wages, working conditions - which is appropriate. We hope that a resolution will be reached soon, so that we can all move forward to continue to meet our mission of providing quality health care and trauma services with compassion and respect.

San Francisco General Hospital is the city's only trauma center, busiest emergency room, and only psychiatric emergency room. Our nurses work in very challenging conditions, with patients in great need. Our nurses do a tremendous job and we have great respect for their skills and dedication. Hospitals are all about nursing care.

We want to make sure that the people of San Francisco understand that staffing was not identified as an issue in either of the two recent incidents cited in the SEIU report. Both the tragic patient death last year, and the assault in the emergency department were fully investigated by state and federal regulators and hospital accreditors and staffing was not cited as a factor in those cases. The recent independent review of our security program also found adequate security staffing for patient safety.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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