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Sutter workers hold first ever strike

Fed up with severe understaffing and 18 months of fruitless contract negotiations, nearly 150 NUHW members held a one day strike Dec. 6 at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry in Sacramento.

Workers danced to music, high-fived passers-by and chanted “This is about patient care!” as they sent a strong message to Sutter that they won’t accept a contract that doesn’t address staffing shortfalls caused by inadequate pay.

“We do this work because we want to help people, but we can’t help patients if we’re understaffed and have no say in the care we provide,” said Alton Wood, a licensed clinical social worker at the hospital. “Since COVID, we’ve been getting patients who are sicker, and we’re overwhelmed with constantly trying to help people who are having the worst day of their lives before they see us.”

The one-day strike was the first work stoppage by NUHW members — who include mental health therapists, social workers, licensed vocational nurses, housekeepers, kitchen staff and patient care support specialists — since they formed a union at the 73-bed hospital two years ago.

At the bargaining table, Sutter has demanded the right to eliminate healthcare benefits, while insisting on wages that would only worsen already unsafe staffing levels. The company also locked out patient care support specialists, who account for more than one-third of all workers, for two days following the strike.

“We really care about our patients, and we want to make sure they get the care they need to get better,” Cesar Mardones, a licensed clinical social worker, told the Sacramento Bee. “It seems like Sutter only cares about money, even if it means losing good caregivers and failing its own patients.”

In addition to the Sacramento Bee, the strike was covered by Capital Public Radio, ABC-10, Fox-40 and CBS-3.

Elected officials who visited the picket line included Assemblymember Kevin McCarty and Sacramento councilmembers Eric Guerra and Katie Valenzuela. Speaking at a rally, Valenzuela said she attended a bargaining session and is “outraged” at how workers are being treated.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that one of the largest healthcare companies in our region, who is not poor, who can afford it, is refusing to take care of people who are taking care of those who frankly need us the most,” she said.

The Sutter Center for Psychiatry is the only non-profit psychiatric hospital in Sacramento County and a key component of Sacramento County’s behavioral healthcare system. Owned by Sutter Health, the hospital contracts with the county to provide care for adults and children with serious mental health conditions. Medi-Cal recipients account for 57 percent of patients admitted to the hospital.

As patient acuity levels have increased since the start of COVID, workers report that there’s often not enough staff on duty to provide adequate care. In a recent NUHW-member survey, 79 percent of respondents reported experiencing understaffing at least once a week, while 58 percent reported experiencing unsafe situations at work due to understaffing.

Mardones and his colleague Sarishma Lal told Capital Public Radio that insufficient staffing at the center has had ripple effects for their work. Both workers assess patients who come into Sutter’s medical center for involuntary psychiatric holds,and decide whether they should be sent to the psychiatric hospital for in-patient treatment.

Lal told the station that there have been delays with transferring patients, many of whom are presenting with more serious cases of mental illness, from the emergency department over to the psychiatric center because there’s not enough staff to accept them.

“It just backs up the emergency rooms with psychiatric patients, which then in turn backs up for medical patients that come in for crises,” she said.

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