AV Press: Nurses rally to decry vacancies at hospital

LANCASTER – Trying to put pressure on Antelope Valley Hospital officials six days before a board election, union organizers called a rally on the sidewalk outside the hospital to say that more than 90 nursing jobs are vacant there.

About 50 nurses and supporters – including Democratic congressional candidate Bryan Caforio and board candidates Mateo Olivares and Michael Rives – wore glow sticks and released dozens of helium balloons into the night sky.

Nurse Kathleen Stalter, a member of the bargaining team, said vacancies represent 10% of the nursing staff.

“If that many nurses were to call in during one shift, that would be a massive patient safety issue, but we are working with that every single day,” she said. “We are working with a 10% reduction in our staffing. It is a patient safety crisis.”

Stalter said the reduction has been felt hospital-wide, but particularly in the emergency room, post anaesthesia recovery room and intensive care unit.

“We’re getting ready to have flu season hit,” she said. “When we are full-staffed, we are already having a crisis because we’re holding patients and we don’t have enough room for the patients who have the flu.”

Nurse Danielle Demyen said nurses counted 94 open positions before last week’s board meeting, but since then the number has risen to 98 posted openings.

“How can we recruit nurses if they are just doing the status quo?” Demyen said. “They’re trying, it’s just not working, obviously.”

“They’ve had money to put into attorneys, they’ve had money to put into their PR firm, they’ve had money to put in four full-page, color ads,” she added. “They’re putting all this money into helping their image and promote the hospital, but they’re not putting it where they need to and that’s in the staffing. We deserve a fair and equitable contract that keeps us and our patients safe.”

A statement issued by the hospital Wednesday said the facility’s staffing is compliant with state regulations.

“Antelope Valley Hospital exists to care for patients, which includes abiding by state regulations about nurse staffing ratios – the number of trained and qualified nurses per patient in each unit at our hospital,” the statement said. “To ensure this, we are consistently evaluating our nursing needs and hiring nurses to fill vacant positions that are created either through nurses leaving or as newly-created positions are established to meet demand.”

Nurses have been working on an expired contract since July 2015. Negotiations between hospital officials and nurses’ representatives over a new contract broke down in August.

Last week, hospital officials sent a letter to the California Nurses Association’s lead negotiator saying the hospital wanted to resume contract negotiations.

In the hospital letter, which was released to the Valley Press Wednesday, hospital lead negotiator Michael Sarrao wrote that the hospital “has repeatedly stated its willingness to meet and bargain.” He said hospital officials told Public Employment Relations Board mediator Joseph Rios they are willing to participate in mediation.

“We continue to hold the belief that the best opportunity for the parties to negotiate a successor agreement is to meet in person, share ideas, discuss concerns, and exchange proposals,” Sarrao added.

Sarrao said in the letter that the hospital and union had tentative agreements on 31 articles. He also said hospital board members Dr. Mukund Shah and Dr. Abdallah Farrukh “have indicated their willingness to attend future bargaining sessions in the status of observers and report their observations to the Board of Directors.”

Nurses went on a one-day strike Sept. 28, but the next day they were turned away when they tried to return to work.

The California Nurses Association labeled the situation an illegal lockout in a 161-page complaint filed Sept. 26 with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

A hospital attorney denied the hospital was engaged in a lockout, but said a five-day contract was the minimum that could be obtained from Nurse Bridge Consultants, the firm that provided more than 300 temporary nurses.

The replacement nurses worked five days under a $3.9 million contract.

The hospital filed its own complaint Aug. 22 accusing the union of improperly declaring an impasse in negotiations, a legal prerequisite to calling a strike.

The nurses representatives’ last wage proposal asked for annual raises of 10%, 9% and 9%, with the first raise retroactive to July 2015, when the last contract expired. Hospital officials said last week they increased their salary proposal to raises of 1.5% each for three years, retroactive to July 2015, accompanied by “step” increases based on a nurse’s years of experience.

They also said they’ve offered to put $100,000 annually into a fund that can be divided as the nurses see fit if 90% of the nurses have perfect attendance for the year, a figure that nurses’ representatives said is impossible to meet.

At the time of the strike, nurses said nearly 60 nurses have left the hospital in the past year, about one-third of that number from the intensive care unit.

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