Union nurses at Alta Bates hospitals in Berkeley and Oakland joined a one-day, region-wide strike against Sutter Health, demanding better staffing and work conditions as healthcare providers continue to be overextended during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sutter Health owns two Alta Bates locations in Berkeley and another in Oakland, among nearly two dozen throughout Northern California. Nurses at hospitals from Santa Cruz to Crescent City joined in the strike, according to National Nurses United, which supported the action with California Nurses Association.
About a hundred nurses clad in red T-shirts and masks filled the lawn of Alta Bates on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley on Monday morning, describing 16-hour shifts in the height of the pandemic, a lack of personal protective equipment, disorganized and inadequate staffing and ongoing issues with management.
Union leadership met for negotiations over the weekend but were unable to reach an agreement, according to union leaders at the strike Monday, and Sutter Health. In response to the action, Sutter Health has brought in additional nurses from locations that are not participating. Sutter Health has hospitals throughout the country.
“While the majority of services including emergency services will continue uninterrupted, it is an unfortunate reality that we may experience impacts to certain services,” Sutter Health spokesperson Monique Binkley Smith said in a statement, adding that the “disruptive” strike shows that the nurse’s union wants to “put politics above patients.”
Ann Gaebler, a longtime nurse in Alta Bates Berkeley’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, spoke to Berkeleyside at the rally and described inadequate scheduling systems that leave nurses overworked in important areas like the emergency room. Due to the “inflexible” way beds are managed, she said nurses are forced to skip breaks and work longer hours, and patients wait hours for beds.
Gaebler grew up in Berkeley, attended Berkeley High School, delivered children at Alta Bates Berkeley and considers it her “community hospital.” She said the “wheels really fell off” when Sutter Health purchased Alta Bates in 2000.
“I want to take care of people like I would want my family to be taken care of,” Gaebler said. “They’re basically crippling us in our desire to provide excellent patient care.”
Eric Koch, a union leader and nurse since 1991 in Alta Bates’ telemetry department, said hospital management also has not addressed serious safety concerns brought forth by nurses, like property damage in hospital parking lots and abuse from aggressive or violent patients.
Many nurses spoke of dangerous working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic that stemmed from a lack of resources, as well as a huge influx in patients. Last year, Cal/OSHA fined Sutter’s Alta Bates location in Oakland over $150,000 following the death of nurse Janine Paiste-Ponder to COVID-19. The report said the hospital made nurses reuse N-95 masks and failed to create safe conditions for its workers.
The hospital system has faced ongoing strikes and union actions over the last decade, and nurses claim conditions and patient care standards have remained subpar since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The full-time staff will remain out this week while Sutter Health fills its staffing with temporary nurses. The action ends at 7 a.m. Saturday, which is also the earliest they can return to work due to the presence of the temporary hires, according to union leaders. In the past, a similar practice was referred to as a “lockout” of employees, but nurses sued Sutter Health over that specific policy in 2004.
“No one goes in until we all go in,” Koch said to the group gathered on Monday. He said the nurses would be willing to call off the action immediately if management showed interest in meeting their workplace demands, but they haven’t received any word so far.
In its statement, Sutter Health said the nurse’s union has not been amiable to good faith negotiations. The hospital said most services will not be disrupted, but elective and non-emergency services have been rescheduled and patients should reach out to their doctors to confirm.
Staff writer Nico Savidge contributed to this report.