Labor commission urges City Council to adopt resolution halting violations of nurses’ rights

Ariel Hayat/Staff

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A city labor commission is urging Berkeley City Council to adopt a resolution aimed at halting what it calls “attacks” on a local nurse workforce and improving staff levels at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Berkeley’s Commission on Labor put forward an item to City Council alleging that the hospital has pressured nurses to work in unsafe conditions and has engaged in mass violations of nurses’ rights. But a representative of Sutter Health, an affiliate of Alta Bates, said allegations put forward by the commission are false.

“I want to assure you that Alta Bates Summit is committed to providing the highest quality care available, and we do this by meeting all required staffing ratios, and patient and nurse safety standards,” wrote Stacey Wells, regional vice president of communications and public affairs at Sutter Health, in a letter to Mayor Tom Bates and City Council.

But Anne Stewart, a labor representative for the California Nurses Association, said the hospital is trying to initiate a corporate restructuring of healthcare in order to maximize profit under the pretenses of needing to cut back financially.

One example she gave of corporatization was the hospital’s allegedly flawed patient census — which she said excludes many who stay for fewer than 72 hours —  so the hospital can reduce its staff. Ultimately, she said, the hospital’s actions will result in issues such as delayed care and longer waiting times in the emergency room.

Additionally, Stewart said insurance benefits for nurses and their families have been cut.

In the commission’s recommendation to City Council, nonunionized nurses hired from outside the area by the hospital were identified as one of the central problems of the local nurse workforce. According to the recommendation, the hospital employs a nonunion workforce of more than 100 “traveler” nurses who may have been trained with standards different from those in California.

Due to short staffing, the local nurse workforce is forced to provide substandard care to patients and work in unsafe conditions, the commission claims. According to the commission’s recommendation, the California Nurses Association and nurses from the hospital documented more than 500 incidents of unsafe health care practices to the California Department of Public Health in February.

Sam Frankel, chairman of the commission, said outside nurses do not necessarily have the same emotional connection to patients as does the local nurse workforce, which impacts patient care.

“The Affordable Care Act demands better care, lower costs and better outcomes,” a hospital statement said. “Meeting all of them means the status quo is no longer sustainable. We must continue to change and evolve to meet the demands of the new healthcare environment and needs of our changing community.”

Berkeley City Council will consider the recommendation at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Nico Correia covers city news. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nicolocorreia.

A previous version of this article quoted Anne Stewart as saying, “They are finding ways for the nurses to do as much as possible — to push them to their limits — and pay them as little as possible.” In fact, she meant that insurance benefits have been cut for nurses and their families.