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Day-Long Walkout Strikes Med Center: By J.DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday August 31, 2004

Workers staged a spirited one-day walkout from the four facilities of the troubled Alameda County Medical Center (ACMC) on Monday, in protest against recently-proposed staff cutbacks. 

Representatives of three locals of the Service Employees International Union—250, 535, and 616—picketed in front of the Highland Hospital Emergency Room and the Alameda County Administration Building in downtown Oakland. While in-patient and emergency room care remained in operation in Highland Hospital in Oakland and in-patient care continued at Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, county-run clinics were closed in order to shift staff to the two hospital facilities. 

In addition to Highland and Fairmont, the facilities affected were the Juvenile Hall’s medical unit and the John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro. 

The job action was targeted toward a Monday evening meeting of the ACMC board of trustees, where a vote was scheduled to confirm a new ACMC budget that proposed a 10 percent reduction in the medical center’s work force. Last Friday, California Superior Court Judge James Richman denied—without comment—an ACMC request for an injunction to halt the one-day walkout. 

SEIU representatives issued a formal statement on the walkout, quoting one local hospital worker that “if the proposed ACMC budget is adopted, patient care will be at risk. To lay off staff means that we would not be able to provide quality care that we pride ourselves on at ACMC. We would be short-staffed, and the community would suffer.” 

Michael Brown, ACMC Public Affairs Officer, said there was “no excuse for a work stoppage. This is unfortunate from the standpoint of patient care.” 

Watched by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies and private security guards as well as patients in hospital gowns taking outside smoking breaks, more than a hundred workers in purple and gold SEIU t-shirts marched in a circular picket line for much of the day in front of Highland shouting “no health care, no peace” and “health care cuts have got to go” and carrying signs that read “Measure A Was Not About Health Cuts In Alameda County,” and “Cut Cambio Not Public Health Care.” 

The “Cambio” referred to Cambio Health Solutions, the Tennessee-based company hired by the Medical Center’s board of trustees last February to analyze ACMC’s finances. Measure A referred to the medical sales tax overwhelmingly approved by Alameda County voters two years ago specifically to shore up publicly-funded hospital care in the county. 

Several cars passing by on East 31st and 14th streets honked horns in solidarity, but one middle-aged man leaning on a crutch at the bus stop across the street from the Emergency Room shouted, “Go take care of your patients!” and spoke against the work stoppage to anyone who came within hearing range. 

Picketers held an early morning rally in front of the Highland Hospital Emergency Room which union representatives estimated at around 400 persons. 

While it was clear from the size of the demonstrations that large numbers of hospital workers were not on the job, no official numbers of walkout participants were immediately available. In addition, union representatives appeared unclear as to the exact effect of the walkout. 

A union media advisory announcement said that workers had “shut down Oakland’s Highland Hospital” but at least some portion of the hospital was clearly in operation during the walkout, with the emergency waiting room appearing to be about a quarter full. A union media spokesperson also said that union workers had assisted the hospital last week in finding replacement workers to keep the Highland facility open. 

ACMC, which is charged with providing both emergency, in-patient, and clinic health care for the county’s uninsured citizens, has been in serious financial trouble for several years. Last July, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury formally blasted both the County Board of Supervisors and ACMC board of trustees for an administration of the medical center the grand jury said was “in shambles.” 

Last year, ACMC’s budget deficit rose to between $60 and $70 million and in April of this year, the Center laid off 340 workers. 

The new round of worker layoffs was estimated between 200 and 300 workers. The 300 figure was listed in a preliminary budget passed last month by the ACMC board of trustees, but Brown called that figure a “moveable target” based upon the actual number of patients to be served by the center’s various facilities. 

“The staff/patient ratio has been getting out of whack for the last couple of years,” Brown said. “Our goal is to get to a staff to patient ratio of 5.79 to 1,” down from what he identified as the present staff to patient ratio of 6.16 to 1. 

In recent weeks, union and ACMC representatives have been holding formal “meet and confer” talks to discuss the proposed layoffs. Brown said he did not expect those sessions to be interrupted by the one-day action,  

A picketer identifying herself only as a specialist in clinic scheduling at ACMC said that management on Sunday evening may have inadvertently contributed to the success of the walkout. 

“They wouldn’t let you park in the lot after six,” she said. “You had to go all the way down to 20th and Broadway, and then catch a shuttle back to the hospital. Management made it so difficult to get to work that some workers who actually wanted to work said they might as well join us.” 

The picketer also took issue with management’s reasoning on the staff/patient ratio and quality care. “I don’t find any logic in laying off people if you’re saying you’re going to be increasing patient care,” she said. “Do you?” 

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson (D-Berkeley) said that while the workers have the right to strike (“I support that”), he pointed out that the one-day work stoppage would cost the medical center $1.5 million, “which they can’t afford, considering the present $60-plus million deficit.” 

Carson said that the medical center’s budget is solely within the discretion of the board of trustees, and that by law, the Board of Supervisors could only intervene in the labor dispute if either the state or federal health and human services agencies made a formal finding that patient care was being compromised in Alameda County because of the budget problems.