Along the streets of Downtown Oakland, the chants of hundreds of protesters can be heard, carrying signs saying, “RNs outside, something wrong inside.” Beginning on Wednesday, October 7th, hundreds of nurses from San Leandro and Alameda hospitals were joined by thousands of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) workers from Highland Hospital where they walked off their jobs to participate in a five-day strike in order to call attention to chronic understaffing, lack of personal protective equipment, and stalled contract negotiations.
Created in the 90s, Alameda Health Systems refers to the organization that was made to manage the hospitals within the county. AHS was to be run without public funding making it a non-profit organization, an issue that arose from this decision was that they were unable to bring enough revenue treating the various communities including the low income in the East Bay. This has led to the AHS often having to balance their budgets with a reduction in staff size and compensations. The impact this has had on healthcare workers within AHS seen with Eva, a midwife who explained the difficulties of working within an understaffed hospital, “Most of us do work from home that’s unpaid, but if that doesn’t happen, people’s lives are at stake.”
In addition to understaffed hospitals, John Pearson, a nurse at Highland Hospital vocalized his concern about the basic problems that are not being addressed under the Alameda Health System, “I work in the ER here at Highland hospital and I can tell you that I’m in the unfortunate position of having to send homeless patients, trauma patient, sexual assault victims out into the cold in the middle of the night in paper t-shirts, paper pants and socks with no shoes because AHS fails to budget and provide weather adequate clothing like the law requires.”
Another issue driving the strike is wages, Pete Castelli, the public sector director for the California Nurses Association (CNA) believes that nurses are currently at a deadlock due to “management refusing to offer any substantive gains for nurses or even a market price so they can retain nurses and keep them working here.” The SEIU is calling for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to resume control of AHS which they will believe will make the county government more likely to fund care, giving workers the wages they see fit.
Along with higher wage demands, union representatives want to see “guarantees of higher staffing levels, better access to PPE, more space for treating COVID-19 patients, and better maintenance of hospital equipment.” On October 6th, Alameda Health Systems issues a statement stating, “a strike is egregious, unnecessary, harmful to the community and does nothing to advance our efforts to partner to ensure that we provide the best care to all.” Many AHS workers refute this claim and instead believe that AHS has continuously had both nurses and patients at risk with their decisions and management, especially during the pandemic.
The five-day strike ended without a contract being made, however on October 20th, weeks after the first picket line was established, a hearing where employees and union representatives discussed their complaints on how AHS is managed. The hearing resulted in the Alameda County Board of Supervisors firing members of the Alameda Health Systems board of trustees. Richard Valle, the president of the board of supervisors expressed that, “Unfortunately, over the last two years, the AHS administration has eroded trust and damaged the system’s relationships with its employees and partners, including labor representatives, medical staff, and the county.