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A victory for caregivers and patients

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A woman walks out of the California Pacific Medical Center facility at 3700 California St. in San Francisco on Oct. 3, 2017. (Mira Laing/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

As a patient care assistant at California Pacific Medical Center, my job includes feeding patients, bathing them and lifting them out of bed. Thanks to our work with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, my colleagues and I have another way of helping patients: We advocate to make sure there are enough of us on duty to take proper care of them.

In December, we won a landmark arbitration ruling ordering the hospital to work with us on establishing a pool of caregivers available to help out whenever staffing runs low. If we can’t come to an agreement, the arbitrator, Matthew Goldberg, indicated he is likely to implement it himself.

This ruling is a big victory for caregivers and patients at San Francisco’s largest private hospital. CPMC’s approximately 200 patient care assistants provide vital, hands-on care to many of its most vulnerable patients. When we’re understaffed, patients have to wait longer for the care they need, and everyone has to shoulder more of the load.

I work in a unit specializing in stroke patients that is often understaffed, especially on weekends. One time, I was the only patient care assistant on duty with 28 patients on the floor.

My colleague, who works nights in an orthopedic unit, reported to the arbitrator that she was the only patient care assistant on duty 80 percent of the time because the other scheduled assistant was pulled to help out in another understaffed unit.

Most employees wouldn’t have any recourse to remedy this situation, but we fought hard to win a voice in our hospital that few caregivers have.

In 2005, I was among roughly 800 licensed vocational nurses, nursing assistants, technicians and housekeepers who went on strike against CPMC. The contract we won not only included raises and improved benefits, but it also established an employee-management committee to deal with staffing disputes. And it provided the nearly unprecedented right to take an unresolved dispute over staffing directly to a third-party arbitrator.

Our road to arbitration started in 2015, shortly after we fought off the hospital’s attempt to double our out-of-pocket health care costs. We initiated a staffing survey, which revealed that the hospital wasn’t replacing patient care assistants who were sick or ordered to sit with patients deemed to be potential threats to themselves.

That led to chronic understaffing and compromised patient care. Yet, hospital management insisted there was no problem. They claimed that if staffing levels dropped, we would simply work our shifts with registered nurses picking up the slack.

That didn’t pass muster with the arbitrator, who recognized that in these situations we are left struggling to care for more patients than we can handle.

The hospital’s position, Goldberg wrote, “… ignores the possibility, if not the reality … that these workers approach their duties with a sense of responsibility toward those in whose hands their care is placed, and do as much as they can to serve as many as they can … even if that might go beyond what they are ‘expected to perform in a normal day’s work.’”

Goldberg concluded that “current staffing levels for [patient care assistants] … do not meet the staffing standards” enshrined in our contract.

Our arbitration victory is rooted in the collective strength we exhibited in 2005. As a San Francisco resident, its extra gratifying to know that my co-workers and I didn’t just stand up for our right to a fair wage and good benefits; we kept our word to ensure that our friends and neighbors here in The City would receive the best care that we can provide.

Elizabeth Cronin is a patient care assistant at California Pacific Medical Center.

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