Editor's note: This was submitted by the National Union of Healthcare Workers as a response to the Nov. 20 commentary by Queen of the Valley CEO Larry Coomes, "Queen of the Valley is negotiating in good faith with union."

I’ve always been proud to provide care at Queen of the Valley. But I’ve never been prouder of being a Queen caregiver than I was on Nov. 20 when I joined hundreds of my colleagues on a picket line outside our community hospital.

Our ranks included homeowners and renters, English speakers and Spanish speakers, technicians who make decent wages and housekeepers who must work extra jobs to provide for their families.

What brought us together — and will keep us united — is our commitment to improve a hospital that we have seen first-hand shift its focus to maximizing profits at the expense of its patients and caregivers.

Queen CEO Larry Coomes, and his bosses at Providence St. Joseph in Renton, Washington, showed their disregard for the people who give and receive care at Queen by locking out many of my colleagues for four days after the strike.

It’s hard to convey how sad and angry we were working during the lockout, knowing that Providence had bused in unfamiliar and untested outsiders to replace our dedicated colleagues. Several of the workers prohibited from returning to their jobs last week were respiratory therapists who treat severely ill patients. Many others were housekeepers and dietary staff who are among the lowest-paid workers at Queen.

The lockout was a naked attempt to scare people from striking by making them lose up to five days of pay. It was a punitive act that illustrates the profit-first mentality of the Queen’s current management team. In my nearly seven years as a patient access coordinator, I’ve witnessed staffing reductions that have accelerated since the 2016 merger with Providence, which now runs our hospital.

Under Providence, Queen has fewer people doing more work. We used to be able to call patients right away to schedule CT scans or MRIs. Now, because of staffing reductions, we have to rely on workers from other Providence hospitals to help schedule appointments — and follow-up calls can take weeks.

Providence has gotten what it wanted with Coomes as its CEO: Robust profits. From July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, the Queen has reported a $62 million operating profit. Yet, the hospital is seeking to cut our health benefits. And, its proposed 2 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment doesn’t keep up with inflation.

Coomes recently claimed in the Register that Queen had made a “strong wage proposal,” noting that it proposed a scale setting wages for jobs at the hospital based on years of service. What Coomes failed to mention, however, is that the proposed wage scale would not only set salaries at Queen far lower than at Kaiser Permanente, it would set salaries lower than at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, which is also operated by Providence St. Joseph.

In a nutshell, Coomes is proposing to cement Queen as one of the lowest-paying hospitals in the North Bay. If Queen workers accept that proposal, we’ll see even more turnover as caregivers view the Queen not as a career destination, but a stepping stone on the way to higher-paying hospitals in Santa Rosa, Petaluma or Vallejo.

That is what’s really at stake in these negotiations. Do we have a truly community hospital with long-serving local caregivers who can advocate for themselves and their neighbors? Or is Queen going to be a profit center for a distant corporation staffed with people just passing through.

For my co-workers and me, the choice is clear. And that’s why we’ll continue fighting for a fair contract and a voice in our community hospital.

Gabriela Caro

Patient access coordinator

Queen of the Valley Medical Center

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