Day one of a five day planned strike by employees against St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood on Monday, October 9, 2023. Registered nurses and health care workers are protesting what their unions call “chronically dangerous short staffing and patient care practices, along with unfair labor practices,” Prime Healthcare hospitals. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Rayleen Gentry is used to making tough choices.

As a respiratory therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, she says those decisions are often dictated by a severe staffing shortage.

“We can never find adequate staffing,” the 43-year-old Los Angeles resident said. “We have patients who need their IVs changed, but they’ll end up waiting for hours waiting to be seen — or won’t be seen at all during our shift.”

Meanwhile, they could be sitting in their own waste, which increases the chance of bedsores and infection.

That scenario and countless others like it prompted an estimated 1,800 workers at St. Francis and three other local Prime Healthcare hospitals to kick off a five-day unfair labor practices strike on Monday, Oct. 9.

Armed with picket signs reading, “Bargain in good faith and protect patient safety,” and “Our patients deserve safe care,” employees marched in front of the four Prime facilities to get their message out.

Chronic understaffing, they say, is impacting patient care while management fails to address the crisis.

Their walkout closely follows a three-day, multistate strike by 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers that ended Friday. Those employees — including 23,000 in Southern California — have also called for increased staffing.

The latest strike is affecting Prime operations at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Garden Grove Hospital Medical Center and Encino Hospital Medical Center.

The licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, ER techs and others are represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. Their contracts expired in June and August and no additional bargaining sessions have been scheduled.

At St. Francis, 600 registered represented by the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals also joined in Monday for their own week-long strike. Their contract expired Aug. 14, but labor negotiations are scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 12 and Tuesday, Oct. 17.

In a statement issued last week, Prime spokeswoman Elizabeth Nikels said the hospitals will remain open with staff on hand to care for patients.

Nikels noted that more than 5 million healthcare professionals have left their jobs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Prime, she said, has established “extensive resources and nationwide strategies to recruit and retain talented professionals.”

“We have implemented processes to expedite hiring timelines, placing highly-trained, skilled staff in positions to advance our mission and care for patients in the safest way possible,” she said.

Ontario-based Prime Healthcare bought St. Francis through bankruptcy in 2020, and nurses say management terminated 20% of the experienced nurses, cut the pay of those who remained by 12%, and instituted a three-year wage freeze during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gentry said management has done little to address the staffing crisis.

“Their way of fixing the problem has been to hire a lot of new graduates,” she said. “And there are no available respiratory therapists to train them, so they are clueless as to what they need to do.”

Gentry said newborns and new mothers are sometimes transferred to other hospitals because there aren’t enough nurses and medical personnel at St. Francis to take care of them.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “We do this because we love our jobs, but we’re overworked and burned out.”

Prime Healthcare operates healthcare facilities in 14 states nationwide.


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