UPDATE: Dec. 17, 2020: The two sides held their last scheduled bargaining session Wednesday night and plan to meet again Thursday to continue discussions, according to an email statement from HCA.
Local groups, including the Hospital Association of Southern California, have expressed concern at the timing of the strike given current COVID-19 surges.
"I must also be clear that in no way are we questioning any union's right to engage in negotiations, including their right to strike, but now is simply not the time," HASC President George Greene said in a release. "All involved must set their differences aside to keep every possible hospital bed open and ready — not just for COVID patients, but for every Californian needing care."
- More than 2,000 nurses and other licensed professionals at three Southern California HCA hospitals are poised to strike Christmas Eve through Jan. 3, citing staffing and safety concerns amid contentious negotiations for a new contract.
- The hospitals plan to limit their full scope of services to care for patients with the highest needs. "This strike will put additional stress on hospitals throughout Southern California, which is already at bed and ICU capacities due to the current surge," an HCA spokesperson said in an email statement.
- The two sides bargained Tuesday and plan to again Wednesday, and the strike could be averted if a deal is reached. Safety, staffing and workload issues are the employees' major concerns, according to the union representing them, Service Employees International Union 121RN.
The mega hospital operator called it "unconscionable" for nurses to walk off the job amid the public health emergency. The union representing those workers said it's a natural progression in the bargaining process.
But California is especially stressed by a COVID-19 surge spurring another statewide lockdown and dwindling regional ICU capacities.
So much so that Gov. Gavin Newsom last week signed an executive order offering stressed hospitals more flexibility, including temporarily changing state mandated nurse-to-patient ratios. In ICUs, one nurse can now take care of up to three patients at a time during the surge instead of two.
Staffing shortages, inadequate personal protective equipment and insufficient testing of patients and staff are major concerns among union members at the three hospitals: Riverside Community Hospital, Los Robles Regional Medical Center and West Hills Hospital & Medical Center, according to a release from SEIU 121RN.
The strike won't be the first this year for one of the hospitals involved. Nurses at Riverside Community Hospital also went on strike for 10 days this summer, citing staffing and safety concerns amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the region.
Workers aren't asking for pay raises or financial incentives, but "would need to see a clear path to making the workplace safe for staff and patients in order to call off the strike," a union spokesperson said in an email statement.
It would also come amid a nationwide COVID-19 vaccine rollout led by health systems like HCA that are prioritizing nurses and first responders for the shot.
"Despite the actions of the union, our focus continues to be on protecting our community and our colleagues, and that includes following state and federal guidelines to offer the vaccine to our frontline caregivers," the HCA spokesperson said in a statement. "This is a critical step in stopping the spread of the virus in our community and we encourage our colleagues to be vaccinated as it becomes available."
The 10-day notice the union gave after initially authorizing the strike should allow HCA, which owns its own staffing services, enough time to find the replacement nurses it needs, a union spokesperson said in an email statement.
But it's unclear how easy that will be with nationwide travel nurse shortages causing hospitals to dramatically increase their rates.
In November, average pay packages for ICU travel nurses were around $2,246 per week, a nearly 28% increase from 2019's average rates, according to NurseFly, a recruiting service.
Statewide, California currently needs roughly 3,000 more temporary medical workers and is calling on retired staff through its California Health Corps program, Newsom said during a press conference Tuesday night.
The pandemic hasn't hindered labor action from healthcare unions, but rather put a spotlight on staffing concerns that have long been an issue for the organizations.
Nurses at the University of Illinois hospital in Chicago went on strike for 10 days in September before reaching a deal on a new contract that stipulated the hiring of 160 additional nurses.
In that instance, a judge granted a temporary restraining order forbidding nurses in certain critical care units from going on strike, as it would "endanger public safety due to the unique nature of the services provided in those units, specialized needs of patients they serve and lack of qualified substitutes to perform nurses' duties," the hospital argued in its lawsuit.