More than 100 Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital nurses and their supporters shut down a San Francisco Health Commission committee hearing Tuesday after what many described as a “breakdown” last week in contract negotiations over staffing issues.
Service Employees International Union Local 2021, the union representing nurses at the hospital, has been bargaining with the City since February. Will Carpenter, a registered nurse at the hospital, told the San Francisco Examiner that tensions came to a head last Friday after the City “refused to negotiate staffing language” into the contract and set a May 31 deadline to wrap up the negotiations.
“That means [staffing] won’t get budgeted, and we have no way of enforcing it,” said Carpenter. “It’s not an official impasse, but we are at an impasse, it’s definitely feeling like one. The City is refusing to staff the hospital. Our next step will eventually be a strike if we can’t reach an agreement.”
An official impasse has not been declared, but the negotiations have by many accounts taken a heated turn. Shouting “Save staffing now,” dozens of nurses and other hospital staff stormed a committee hearing held Tuesday at the hospital, which is operated by the Department of Public Health, effectively shutting it down within minutes of its start.
Reading from a petition calling for a “vote of no confidence” in DPH’s executive leadership that has been signed by an estimated 1,300 union members, veteran nurse Aaron Kramer said that The City is “refusing to negotiate over key nursing priorities” despite “alarming data that has emerged during bargaining.”
ZSFGH spokesperson Brent Andrews told the Examiner that the hospital is interested in “continuing negotiations” and wants to “conclude them fruitfully,” but could not comment on staffing levels outside of the negotiations.
In response to inquiries about understaffing, Andrews said that the hospital’s staffing is at “safe levels,” and “highly regulated” by DPH and the Health Commission.
“I understand the nurses’ concerns, and we want to hear them in the context of negotiations. We want to re-establish negotiations,” he said, but declined to comment on the May 31 deadline.
The hospital reports a vacancy rate of more than 10 percent. While 18 employees were hired in April for various positions, including registered nurses, the hospital also lost 13 employees during that same period, including two retirements. An additional 28 employees are expected to retire by July.
A total of 10 vacancies are reported in ZSFGH’s Emergency Care unit, 20 in its Critical Care unit, six in its Medical/Surgical unit, and six more in its Operation Room.
Current employees say that they are burdened by understaffing and that patients are placed at-risk. The union also alleges that 40 percent of nursing hours in the hospital are currently being performed by per diems, or temporary staff.
Brenda Keegan, a registered nurse who is on the bargaining team, called the May 31 deadline to settle “arbitrary.” She said that the nurses were told that if the deadline is not met, pay raises and other investments negotiated in the contract could miss a funding deadline in The City’s budget cycle.
“They are basically telling us we won’t get any of that unless we settle the contract by Friday,” said Keegan. “We are telling them that’s not what’s important right now. We are talking about staff. The ER is dying down there for the want of more staff and better ratios.”
In a May 27 memo, San Francisco Health Network Director Roland Pickens said that The City and the union have had 20 bargaining sessions, including five under the oversight of a neutral mediator.
He added that agreement has been reached on a total of 36 proposed amendments to the contract, and that The City has proposed a base wage hike of 11 percent over three years, including a 4 percent hike in the first year.
The wage hikes along with “other improvements” add up to a “more than $45 million investment in nurses,” according to Pickens.
He added that The City has “made commitments to nurse staffing increases and differential pay for difficult assignments,” and are discussing the nurses’ concerns .
“We are committed to reaching an agreement in time to include the nurses’ raise in the City budget soon to be adopted by the Board of Supervisors, to ensure there is no delay in the compensation increases our nurses deserve,” Pickens said.
SEIU labor organizer Nato Green said that staffing levels have been in the nurses’ contract “for decades,” and are a “point of pride for this union that [ZSFGH] nurses got ratios first” after fighting for minimum staffing levels in the early days of the AIDS crisis.
“From the nurses’ perspective, gutting a 30-year history of maintaining staffing standards in the contract is an outrage,” said Green.
The union and city are expected to resume bargaining on Wednesday.