As Contract Expires, Nurses Say Staffing Shortages At City Hospitals Causing Patient Issues

With their contract set to expire in almost five weeks, nurses with the San Francisco Department of Public Health are alleging that staffing issues at the city’s hospitals is causing patient safety issues.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said that with the nurses’ contract expiring on June 30, the union will hold a strike authorization vote on the week of June 9.

The union claims that staffing shortages in the city’s hospitals is causing poor safety standards and is a violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

While San Francisco General Hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan acknowledged the hospital has some staffing shortages, the exact number of nurses the city is short of is a matter in dispute during contract negotiations.

The union claims that the city’s public health department is anywhere between 94 and 304 nurses short of where it should be, while having the budget to hire far more workers.

Kagan said that SFGH, like all hospitals, has vacancies and fills them through hiring temporary employees and on-call nurses because fully staffing can be challenging.

She said as the only trauma center in the city with the only psychiatric emergency room, SFGH can get incredibly busy and regardless of staffing levels often has to redirect some patients to other hospitals to cover those most in need.

Despite that, she said that the hospital never turns away trauma patients, psychiatric emergencies, walk-ins, strokes or heart attacks.
The hospital calls this process “diversion” meaning that ambulances are instructed to take certain patients to other hospitals. The union says that the hospital has a diversion program in place 43 percent of the time.

The union also pointed to the recent case of Lynne Spalding, who went missing from a hospital bed and was found dead in one of the stairwells weeks later late last year as an example of how patient safety is overlooked at the hospital.

But Kagan said that multiple investigations into that incident have concluded that staffing was not a factor in her disappearance or death. She said that while failings were found in the hospital’s safety procedures, inadequate staff was not one of them.

“We need enough regular staff to comply with State staffing laws and our own hospital safety policies,” the union wrote in a four-page report on the staffing allegations. “Nurses demand that the City fill budgeted patient care positions immediately, and remove bureaucratic delays in hiring for budgeted positions.”

Kagan said she could not comment directly on the negotiations, but that she hoped for a quick and amicable resolution.
“We care about our nurses, we respect them, we know they work in challenging circumstances,” she said.

Scott Morris, Bay City News

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