Lined up along the sidewalk of the 1000 block of Trancas Street, wearing matching red T-shirts and waving signs, a large group of Queen employees held a 24-hour strike outside the Napa hospital on Wednesday.
Starting at 6 a.m., workers belonging to a union representing some 470 Queen of the Valley Medical Center staffers participated in the walk-out to pressure the hospital to agree to a union contract.
The employees include respiratory therapists, nursing assistants, medical technicians, housekeepers and food service workers.
Workers voted to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in November 2016, but have not yet negotiated a contract.
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David Koch, an MRI technologist who has been with the Queen for more than five years, walked the picket line with his colleagues.
“The hospital could have avoided this,” Koch said. “We’ve been asking for a contract for three years.”
“They’ve made this a continued fight and dragged out the negotiations,” Koch said of the hospital administration.
Gabriela Caro, a patient access coordinator, also joined the strike. She’s been with the Queen for six years.
“We have been fighting for this contract,” said Caro. “Whatever we ask” for in benefits or pay, the hospital always offers “less, less, less.”
“They’re all about the numbers,” said Caro.
The hospital is profitable, she noted, yet they don’t have a signed contract. “Why?” she asked. “I feel very frustrated.”
Dietary department worker Ramon Ponce is new to the Queen but he joined the strike as well.
For him, “It’s about three things,” said Ponce. “Community, celebrating my human rights and building a better tomorrow.”
Coming to an agreement over wages is important to Ponce. It’s expensive to live in Napa, he said. “I would need constant raises to adjust to the cost of living in Napa.”
Juana Martinez, who works in the housekeeping department, has been with the hospital for 23 years.
She chose to strike “because I want to support my coworkers,” Martinez said. It’s her first strike, she said. “Last night I couldn’t sleep,” she admitted, but she was happy to be supporting her coworkers.
Larry Coomes, hospital CEO, said the hospital has been meeting with the union since August 2018, and agreement has been reached on all issues aside from wages.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Coomes. “I believe we’ve done a good job of negotiations.”
“We are very hopeful that everybody will come back to work and that the union will return to the table with reasonable expectations and get back to working as a family caring for the community,” Coomes added.
“The hospital has offered significant wage increases and a generous package of benefits, including the same paid time off, retirement and benefit options that NUHW-represented caregivers in Southern California have accepted in their contract,” according to a statement from the Queen.
Regardless of the conflict, health care needs must still be met, so during the strike the hospital will maintain its daily operations and remain open using temporary workers, said Coomes.
However, because temporary worker contracts require a minimum of five days of work, the permanent staffers will not be permitted to return to work until Monday, Nov. 25, hospital management said.
Jesse Hernandez has worked in the dietary department of the Queen for 12 years.
“It’s a little scary” to be on strike, he said. With the holidays around the corner, the possibility of not working for five days and losing that amount of pay will affect his family, he said. “I have a young son at home.”
But the cost of living in Napa is a concern, he said. “I worry about it.”
Hernandez said he plans to show up to work on Thursday. “We’ll see if they let me in. If they turn us away, we’ll ask why.
While some non-emergency services will be limited during the strike, the emergency department will be fully staffed and ready for any patient needs, said a statement from the Queen.
The outpatient services that were not available on Wednesday, Nov. 20, were bone density screening, mammography and outpatient lab services (located at St. Joseph Health Prompt Care on Imola Avenue and in the 980 Trancas Street building).
Asked if the strike and public display outside the hospital make the Queen look bad to the community, Coomes demurred.
“I think the community understands the situation were in,” said Coomes.
Coomes said he is not anti-union. “We totally respect our caregivers’ right to organize and strike,” said Coomes. “I’d prefer we sit at the table and come to a consensus on how to work together.”
Coomes said an agreement on wages and benefits was the sticking point for the negotiations.
On that topic, “We are very far apart from the union’s expectations,” he said.
The health care executive said some employees, and the public, may not fully understand “the complexities of running a 1,300-employee organization with more than 60 different departments.”
However, “I do believe our employees understand (our mission) and the reason we are here is to care for the community. They connect with” that mission, he said.
The health care industry is a rapidly changing environment, said Coomes.
“Costs are going up and revenue going down. It’s a delicate balance to keep the doors open. If the costs exceed the revenue then nobody will stay in business.”
He believes the Queen is offering a competitive wage rate to union members. “If we gave everybody the wages they wanted, we’d close the doors.”
Coomes said the union is misrepresenting the Queen’s offer and setting unrealistic expectations for its members. “They have a bad habit of doing that,” he said.
Coomes said that, yes, some workers will lose up to five days of pay due to the strike. Other workers may return to work as soon as Thursday.
But he noted that more than 100 NUHW members crossed the picket lines and did report to work on Wednesday.
“That’s significant. I attribute that to our level of engagement and culture at the Queen,” said Coomes.
Or perhaps they could not afford unpaid days off, he acknowledged. “It’s a personal decision.”
Coomes said typically the first union contract agreement is always the hardest but he described being “shocked” by “the level of bullying, harassment, and intimidation being done by the union” during these negotiations.
Coomes said he heard by word of mouth that “they are calling our caregivers at home and threatening retaliation if they come to work” during the strike, and that “they will be isolated, ignored (and) no longer treated as a teammate. Really bad stuff.”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” said Tyler Kissinger, an organizer with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Kissinger was at the strike on Wednesday. “The only threatening that’s been happening is the hospital threatening to withhold people’s pay in retaliation for a one-day strike.”
Providence St. Joseph Health was formed by the 2016 merger of Providence Health & Services with St. Joseph Health, which operated Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital in Sonoma County, and St. Joseph Eureka and Redwood Memorial hospitals in Humboldt County.
Over the past year, those five Northern California hospitals have netted more than $197 million in operating profits. Yet according to the NUHW, the company “is seeking to cut health benefits and reduce vacation time, while offering only 2 percent annual raises that do not keep up with rising costs.”
“Caregivers also report that their facilities are severely understaffed following layoffs at several hospitals in recent years and resignations from workers taking jobs at better paying hospitals,” said the union.
In a union survey earlier this year, 92 percent of bedside caregivers at Providence St. Joseph hospitals throughout Northern California reported that their shifts are understaffed at least once a week. Nursing assistants reported having to care for as many as 20 patients at a time, said the union statement.
“We can’t provide quality patient care if we don’t have enough caregivers,” said Joy Layson, a nursing assistant at Queen of the Valley. “And our hospitals won’t be able to recruit or retain quality workers if caregivers can’t make enough to help support our families.”
Workers at Santa Rosa Memorial, a sister hospital, planned to picket in support of the Napa strike for two hours at mid-day Wednesday. Workers are also striking outside two Providence St. Joseph hospitals in Humboldt County.
In October, Attorney General Xavier Becerra blocked Providence St. Joseph from joining its Northern California hospitals with those of Adventist Health, finding that the partnership was not in the public interest because it had “the potential to increase health costs, and potentially limits access and availability of health care services.”
“We’re going to keep fighting until this company values its workers and patients as much as its profits,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the caregivers.
You can reach Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org