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After winning contract, NUHW members take concerns to county sheriff

NUHW members who provide health care at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County took a big step in November toward addressing long-standing issues at the jail that have resulted in understaffing and compromised the care available to inmates.

With the 150 nurses, medical assistants, occupational therapists, and other workers ready to picket outside the hospital with support from local elected officials, Wellpath, the private-equity-owned company that employs NUHW members, made dramatic concessions at the bargaining table.

“Wellpath didn’t think we’d present a united front,” said Lynee George, a nurse who works at Santa Rita. “Once they saw all the signatures for the informational picket and us meeting with other people and putting their business out there, they decided to take the negotiations much more seriously.”

In one marathon negotiating session, Wellpath agreed to a contract that will increase salaries by 19 percent over four years, as well as increase pay for working weekends, allow for sufficient onboarding training for nurses, and establish a staffing committee to make sure that the jail’s health services are adequately staffed.

“The new contract will help Wellpath retain full-time employees which will improve staffing and patient care,” George said.

But a new contract alone is not enough to address issues with Wellpath, which was the subject of a recent San Francisco Chronicle investigation documenting more than 1,000 lawsuits that have been filed against the company by prisoners, their families and civil rights groups.

At Santa Rita, workers say that conditions for themselves and their patients inside the jail have gotten worse since a merger put Wellpath in charge of health services several years ago.

Currently, workers at Santa Rita report that:

  • They’re constantly having to work overtime including consecutive shifts, which Wellpath doesn’t accurately report to county officials.
  • Medications have not been well stocked, which has led to patients becoming physically aggressive because their medication isn’t available.
  • Medical care is regularly delayed because workers don’t have access to patients’ medical history.
  • Equipment such as ultrasound and EKG machines have stopped working, forcing patients to be transported to hospitals for treatment.

Rather than celebrate their new contract, workers met with Alameda County Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez to inform her of the ongoing issues at the jail and request her help in making Wellpath address them.

Sheriff Sanchez indicated that she will meet with her staff and Wellpath management to develop a corrective plan by early January.

“The sheriff was very surprised to hear about a lot of these things and that Wellpath is not meeting their end of the contract,” George said. “She wants to find someone from the department to act as a liaison to track some of these things and hold Wellpath more accountable.”

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