High overtime among UC medical care workers may indicate understaffing

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According to UC payroll data, medical care workers continue to receive large amounts of overtime pay, which workers have pointed to as an indicator that staffing levels at medical centers are below what is necessary to provide adequate patient care.

Workers say the numbers point to understaffing, as they often must work overtime and through breaks to care for patients and complete other essential tasks.

UCSF nurse Erin Carrera, a representative for the California Nurses Association, said that most instances of overtime occur when there are not enough staff members, nurses have not finished their patient-care work or a replacement has not arrived to relieve them.

“We’re nurses,” Carrera said. “We’re not going to walk away from our patients because we don’t have a release.”

Out of nearly 15,000 nurses employed by the UC system in 2012, nearly 13,000 earned some amount of overtime, according to a UC payroll report published July 31. The payroll report also shows that 235 of the 270 ultrasound technologists and 485 of the 547 radiology technologists employed by the system earn overtime. These ratios have remained somewhat consistent since 2010 and 2011.

UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said that overtime is a necessary part of providing adequate health care services and that staff members are well-compensated for overtime work.

Nurses working overtime are typically compensated at a rate of 1.5 times their regular salary, according to the nurses’ contract. The contract also stipulates that overtime cannot be mandatory except during university-declared emergencies.

“Effective medical care means that staff must be flexible and willing to work overtime in the event of emergencies,” Klein said in an email. “I believe you’ll find that the majority of our medical center employees – dedicated professionals – enjoy their jobs and consider UC a great place to work.”

Overtime work is voluntary for many workers, but UC San Diego MRI technologist Richard Smith said that the UC system can say it is voluntary because they know someone will do the work. Smith said that he and his co-workers each work seven to 25 hours of overtime every week in order to fulfill patient-care needs.

“Someone has to step up and say ‘I’ll do the overtime’ and take care of the patients,” Smith said.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents more than 12,000 patient-care workers, has claimed that many UC medical centers are experiencing understaffing and has cited staffing levels as a major reason for recent strikes. The union has been in contract negotiations with the UC system since 2012.

“There is far more use of overtime,” said AFSCME spokesperson Todd Stenhouse. “UC’s policy has been to demand that health care workers do more with less.”

Tim Thrush, vice president of patient care at AFSCME and diagnostic sonographer at UCSF, said that patient-care workers have to work overtime in order to care for every patient that management books.

According to Klein, however, the number of health care staff members employed by the UC system increased from 2008 to 2013, with the number of patient-care technical workers increasing by about 13 percent and the number of health care professional staff members increasing by about 35 percent. Service staff represented by AFSCME increased by less than 1 percent.

“Our medical centers operate in a highly regulated environment and if we had unsafe staffing levels, we simply would not be allowed to operate,” Klein said in an email.

Stenhouse said the UC system should convert its per diem workers, who receive no guaranteed benefits, to its career staff. He added that there is a need for enforceable levels of safe staffing and a committee to ensure safe staffing ratios are maintained.

Contact Sohan Shah at [email protected]