Nurses labor union files complaint against Sutter Health following five-day lockout

Two nurses’ unions filed a complaint Tuesday against Sutter Health and eight of its affiliates for what they believe was the unlawful lockout of registered nurses last month.

In response to a one-day nurses strike Sept. 22, Sutter Health hospitals hired replacement nurses for five days, preventing nurses from returning to work until the following week — a move that National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, a chapter of the national union, claim is unlawful.

“We want this to be found to be an illegal lockout,” said Liz Jacobs, a spokesperson for the state union. “We believe that Sutter was using this to really put pressure on the nurses not to strike and to punish them for going on strike.”

After the Sept. 22 strike, in which at most 23,000 union members walked out to address “200 sweeping demands for concessions” they said would “restrict their ability to effectively advocate for patients,” nurses could not return to work until Sept. 27.

“Because the nurses’ union called a statewide strike and pulled 23,000 nurses away from more than 100,000 patients throughout the state, securing traveling nurses was difficult,” said Stacey Wells, director of public affairs and communications at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, an affiliate of Sutter Health, in an email. “To get the number of (registered nurses) necessary to continue caring for our patients we had to sign a five-day contract with the agency that provided traveling nurses.”

Yet the union believes it gave Sutter Health fair notice of the plans to strike with a Sept. 9 release. According to the complaint, nurses were advised that they would be required to work on the day of the strike, and if they chose not to show up, they would be able to return to work only after the five-day replacement period.

The three Alta Bates Summit Medical Center campuses, two of which are in Berkeley and one in Oakland, employ 1,800 nurses, and 40 percent came to work on the day of the strike, according to Wells. Alta Bates hired 500 replacement nurses under five-day contracts to work after the strike.

“Sutter wasn’t forced by anyone to serve a long-term lockout contract — they did it voluntarily,” Jacobs said. “Sutter had the guarantee of the nurses of an unconditional return to work at the end of the one-day strike.”

In the complaint, filed with the National Labor Relations Board in San Francisco, the union is requesting that Sutter Health award back pay, lost benefits and reimbursements for all losses for those who were denied reinstatement after the strike.

During the lockout, the relationship between the union and the hospital became further strained after a patient died at the Alta Bates campus in Oakland due to a medical error made by a replacement nurse.

“The nurses are provided by the agency we contract with and come from all over, California and beyond,” Wells said. “Each is licensed to work in California and each is as qualified to work in our medical center like any regular nurses, and those with special certifications are assigned to specialty units, just like regular nurses.”

Wells said that Alta Bates Summit is not disclosing any information about the nurse involved in the incident.