After ten months of negotiations, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299—a union consisting of 13,000 Patient Care Technical Workers—will hold a vote to go on strike from April 30 to May 2, according to a press release.
Union members, consisting of UC frontline patient care and service workers, are opposed to the systemwide two-tier pension reforms that will take effect July 1, 2013. Employee pensions have long since been a source of additional revenue, which UC officials rebutted as a must for ensuring the “long-term viability of our retirement program” of the university system.
Todd Stenhouse, a union representative, expressed that patient care has been “short-changed” as a result of chronic employee understaffing and increased wages for UC administrators. “At UC, the cap on pensionable contributions is up to $375,000 a year, three times plus that of employees of the state of California,” he said. “So in effect … what they are demanding of their lowest wage workers is that they pay more so that executives can continue to receive golden handshakes [which is] an upfront to every taxpayer.”
Last month, the union released a controversial report entitled “A Question of Priorities: Profits, Short Staffing and the Shortchanging of Patient Care at UC Medical Centers,” revealing allegations of negligent mismanagement throughout UC hospitals.
The report cited the Leapfrog Group, an organization that discloses hospital performance and patient safety. It gave the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center an F grade under the annual “Hospital Safety Score.” This information was also previously released by the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. The report also referred to the elimination of nearly 300 medical positions on UC San Francisco’s Parnassus campus last month.
“We’ve bargained in good faith and worked to secure a contract that puts patient safety first and honors the principle of basic fairness to the frontline care professionals at the foundation of the UC medical system,” union President Kathryn Lybarger said in a press release. “Instead of agreeing to these basic standards, UC administrators are asking frontline care providers to subsidize chronic understaffing, growing management bloat and unprecedented executive excess at UC’s taxpayer-supported teaching hospitals.”
Director of the UCR Student Health Center Cindy Wong said that frontline care employees, which include nurse aids, pharmacy technicians, personal care workers and hospitality assistants, must often feel the brunt of the increasing workload, especially among a higher degree of ill patients. Even though UCR does not yet have an active medical facility, frontline care workers are employed at the Student Health Center.
“Having come from Kaiser, which is a big pro-union environment, I guess the healthcare workers have to do what they feel is right. But [with] the health center itself, we have an obligation to take care of our students, so we will do whatever we have to do to make sure there’s adequate staffing so we won’t jeopardize patient care, even if people choose to strike,” said Wong. She states that strikes from hospital workers can be dangerous, since they put patients at risk of inadequate care. But she shared sentiments with the medical workers, who feel that they lack adequate coverage. Wong is a former Kaiser Permanente nurse.
In response to union’s demands, UC Media Specialist Shelly Meron reaffirmed the university system’s stance on the financial pull-and-tug between systemwide union workers and administrators.
“UC is a public institution, and we have an obligation to manage the employee benefits in a financially prudent way; that’s exactly what we’re aiming to accomplish with these reforms,” said Meron. “We can’t afford not to make changes. If we don’t, the financial stability of the retirement program will be in danger.”
UC officials claim that the union is attempting to gain financial leverage, specifically over increased benefits, by using patient care as a negotiating tool.
“By encouraging a possible strike among our patient care employees, AFSCME is attempting to use patient care as a tool in contract negotiations and potentially endangering public health, which is completely inappropriate. Patients are not bargaining chips,” she said.