Riverside County prepares for possible hospital strike

Supervisors retain temporary nurses

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a contract with a temporary staffing agency to provide nurses at Riverside University Medical Center and other Riverside County facilities in the event of future walkouts by unionized employees.

The agreement with Omaha-based Nurse Bridge Consultants was a direct result of last week's work stoppages by Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents nurses at the medical center and county clinics.

Under the contract, the county will disburse up to $7 million to cover the expense of staffing the Moreno Valley hospital and the county's mental health treatment facility in Riverside to ensure minimal disruption to service if medical professionals take to the picket lines again.

A hospital official told the board that during walkouts on Sept. 6 and 7, there was no disruption to emergency room operations thanks to preparations.

For nearly six years, the county has contracted with Irvine-based RightSourcing Inc. to fill clinician gaps at the hospital. However, the firm does not have the capacity to meet the county's staffing needs during a protracted strike, according to the Executive Office.

"If (the) Riverside University Health System is unable to support direct patient care, our organization's license with both the state and federal governments could be placed at significant risk,'' according to to an RUHS statement posted to the board's policy agenda.

Officials pointed out that the emergency room sees about 200 patients daily, and the hospital averages 282 patients under care in other wards at any given time.

On Aug. 30, the county declared an impasse in contract negotiations with SEIU Local 721, the county's second-largest collective bargaining unit, representing roughly 7,500 workers. The union had already authorized a strike and had put supervisors on notice during the board's Aug. 29 meeting that workers would be walking off of the job.

The two-day labor action involved several thousand employees picketing at the hospital and in downtown Riverside. The county obtained a court injunction barring some medical personnel in sensitive positions from participating.

SEIU has listed 19 instances of purported unfair labor practices by the county, stemming mostly from "lack of transparency'' in contract talks and creating working conditions that make employees feel intimidated, according to the union.

Spokesman Mike Long told CNS last week that the collective bargaining unit has been pressing for documents tied to the county's contracts with Netherlands-based KPMG, a professional services firm retained to aid the county in identifying and implementing efficiencies to make agencies run leaner and cheaper. The county has spent $21 million on KPMG already and is on track to 
spend another $20.3 million under a contract signed in July.

According to Long, the county has refused to release information about the arrangement. SEIU believes its employees could help ferret out the very savings that the county has paid KPMG to find.

Union representatives further allege the county has ignored repeated requests in negotiations to institute safety measures that better protect nurses and social workers in the hospital and elsewhere. According to Long, workers who took their complaints directly to the board in March were put under surveillance.

County officials argue the union is resorting to public protests to ratchet up pressure at the bargaining table, where negotiations have been dragging on for 14 months.

Executive Office spokesman Ray Smith said last week that the average SEIU-affiliated worker's salary has risen 38 percent since 2012.

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