Nurses from the Van Nuys Behavioral Health Hospital picket outside its doors to demand safer conditions for staff and patients. (Photo by Gabriel Arizon)

Nurses at Van Nuys Behavioral Health Hospital have voted to authorize a strike, citing concerns about patient safety, staffing, and worker retention issues. 

The vote, which was held during a picket outside the hospital entrance on Tuesday, Feb. 1, gives authority to the nurses’ contract bargaining team to move forward with a strike if they feel that negotiations are not yielding results.

If the nurses’ bargaining team calls for a strike, it could come as soon as Feb. 14.

A group of 20 nurses representing the SEIU Local 121RN union demonstrated outside the facility on Tuesday, saying contract negotiations to improve patient and worker safety have broken down.  Among the issues that nurses have raised to management are lax security, understaffing, burnout and lack of proper equipment.

The facility, also known as the Southern California Hospital at Van Nuys, is a psychiatric hospital that provides mental health services to adults on a voluntary basis.

“We continue to face insufficient staffing—too often we’re forced to take on more patients than what is legally deemed safe,” said Jan Burgos, a nurse in the Psych unit at the hospital. “We power through our twelve-hour shifts, but without the assurance that someone will relieve us at the end. We’re still reeling from the pressures we faced during the pandemic, which has taken a toll on our minds and bodies.”

According to Shelia Wells — a nurse who has worked at the hospital for seven years — the staff has been in conversation with management since October about these issues, but that management has “ignored” their demands.

In addition, nurses say, they are dealing with a lack of proper protective equipment (PPE). Wells stated that, along with a shortage of PPE, the hospital has not been keeping track of who has been in contact with COVID patients. This has led to multiple outbreaks, including Wells’ family.

In 2020, the hospital was fined over $20,000 by the federal agency OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) after nurses reported violations to regulatory agencies over the PPE insufficiency.

The combination of these issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, has left many nurses feeling burnt out and leaving the profession, union officials said.

“We’re striking because throughout this pandemic, we have been promised — not just compensation — but safety provisions and we’ve just been neglected and even now that we’re going through our contract, they’re not bargaining in good faith,” Wells said.

“They’re offering us really ridiculous [work] increases that shouldn’t be expected for nurses at all. We just feel really depleted.”

The hospital has security onsite in order to help manage patients that may turn aggressive. However, some nurses say, that security at the facility is too lax.

Rudy Barzola, a nurse and former supervisor who has worked at the hospital for nearly 23 years, was on the receiving end of one such aggressive patient. He described an incident where a patient attempted to throw a chair at a nurse when he was passing by. After grabbing the chair, the patient bit and attacked him, for which he was admitted to a hospital.

Barzola said security did nothing to help.

“If we get a patient on Friday, there are certain doctors that don’t work the weekend, so they don’t get seen … until Monday,” Barzola said. “So they have two days with no medication, and they’re super, super out of it. It’s unsafe. …  I’m a nurse. I’m not trained to subdue a patient.”

It is not just worker safety that has Barzola concerned, but that of patients as well.

He stated that the facility only has one isolation room for COVID patients, which becomes a problem when more than one person tests positive. Furthermore, the room is non-negative pressure.

According to News Medical, a negative pressure room is designed to prevent potentially contaminated air or other dangerous particles from flowing outside into non-contaminated areas while allowing clean air to flow inside.

Barzola stated that before the union came in three years ago, the hospital would lose at least two nurses a month. After they got the contract with the union, the facility was able to retain its nurses.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, union representatives said the workplace conditions reverted to how they once were and nurses have now looked elsewhere for better opportunities.

In a statement provided by hospital management, the facility will remain open and not be affected by union activity. It also states that management is “disappointed” in the route the union has taken, explaining that they have not given the bargaining process an ample chance to succeed and their actions have instead been counter-productive.

“While we respect the union and its representation of our employees, we do not support the disruptive environment that it is trying to create, especially during the pandemic,” the statement reads. “We are committed to bargaining in good faith to reach an agreement that is fair to both union members and our hospital.”