Courtesy Photo

Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) staged a one-day protest in front of Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank on Tuesday, May 19, as the latest round of contract talks between the union and hospital officials seem perilously close to breaking down.

Protestors were visible near the front entrance of the hospital from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. They were relatively small in number, going out in shifts of 25 “so we won’t disrupt any work flow for the hospital,” a union spokesperson said.

The contract for the union healthcare workers that include x-ray, laboratory and surgical technicians, respiratory therapists and others, was originally to have expired in March, but was extended to May 31 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Registered nurses here are also part of the SEIU-UHW, but their contract is not part of this current round of talks.

During a recent negotiation session, however, union officials were insulted by a hospital negotiator’s reference to one of their contract demands as “ignorant.” The remark has inflamed and rallied the division of membership that took part in Tuesday’s demonstration.

“We decided to do this because we came through with an offer, and [the hospital negotiators] called us ‘ignorant’ in the meeting. That was two sessions ago,” noted Jacob Fukumoto, a radiology technician who is part of the union negotiating team, and who spoke to theSan Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol by phone. “So we came back again, and still did not come to an agreement. They feel they want to just give us what we think we deserve.”

Fukomoto said the new contract talks had started in February, but the current contract was extended to help battle the pandemic. He said the union’s seeking, among other demands, better Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers, better staffing and a wage increase.

“We had put our bargaining to the side so we could handle the last two months of what’s been going on in the whole world,” Fukumoto said. “We decided to come back (to bargain) because we thought we might come to an agreement and get this off the table so we could just go back to just helping our patients out. But, obviously, there’s a roadblock in the contract negotiations.”

Another union member, surgical technician Christian Ayon — who also spoke with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol by phone — believes the dismissive reference by hospital negotiators as another example of what he sees as “a lack of respect” for workers who are not doctors or nurses.

“We’re trying to bring awareness to the community here on the injustices this hospital is doing at providing correct PPEs, and just not taking care of their workers. You see signs that say we ‘heroes,’ and then we come into contract negotiations and they call us ignorant because we ask for a fair wage,” Ayon said.

“There’s a mixed message at this point. The standard cost-of-living raise is 3%, and they offered us 1%. And this hospital has been able to do this for quite a while, and we’re tired and fed up with it. They have two unions here — one for the RNs and one for the rest of the common workers, which would be us. We’re considered the ‘low-class workers’ by the administration, because they called us ignorant. The people that take x-rays, the people who do your lab work, the people who do respiratory therapy, the people who pass the instruments to your surgeons — now they’re ‘ignorant.’”

Hospital officials released a statement saying they were “unaware” of the union’s message and action Tuesday.

“We are surprised to learn there are safety concerns as just a few isolated questions about personal protective equipment have surfaced in our talks and were answered to the bargaining unit’s satisfaction. In fact, we meet weekly with union representatives and members to review COVID-19 safety and the availability of personal protective equipment,” according to the statement.

“The safety of our caregivers and patients is our highest priority. Providence Saint Joseph and all our facilities follow recommendations from leading experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and county public health official guidelines to ensure any potential hazards are addressed.”

The statement went on to say that Tuesday’s action “is not a strike” and that the informational picketing was having “no impacts on our patients, their families, our caregivers, our hospital or our community. We remain deeply committed to all of our caregivers, including our service and maintenance caregivers. We are proud of the high quality, compassionate care and service they and their co-workers provide to our patients and the community.”

Hospital officials added they hoped to continue to negotiate “in good faith,” and an agreement would be reached. 

“During the COVID-19 crisis, we significantly enhanced benefits for all caregivers. In addition, we are offering annual guaranteed wage increases to the union for these caregivers even in this challenging environment,” hospital officials stated. “In concert with our guiding principles and values, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center respects the rights of our caregivers to conduct informational picketing.”

Fukumoto did not sound confident that a deal could still be reached by the May 31 deadline, but said he’s not “un-optimistic” to the possibility of a new contract and the avoidance of a potential strike.