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Stanford Nurses Strike Over Staffing Shortages, Lack of Mental Health Support

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nurses wearing bright blue union shirts hold signs reading 'care 4 nurses so we can care 4 you'
Stanford nurses and their supporters rally as part of a strike on April 25, 2022. Thousands of nurses walked off the job, calling on management to address staffing shortages and provide workers with better mental health support. (Courtesy of Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement)

About 5,000 nurses at Stanford and Lucile Packard Children's hospitals went on strike Monday, with workers calling on Stanford Health Care management to boost wages, address staffing shortages and provide workers with more mental health support, a need that's grown during the pandemic.

According to the Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement, or CRONA, which represents the striking nurses, executives at Stanford Health Care and Luclle Packard Children's Hospital have failed to address low staff retention and high turnover rates and have attempted to withdraw health benefits for striking nurses.

Stanford administrators and union leaders are set to go back to the bargaining table Tuesday as nurses enter their second day of an open-ended strike.

Roughly 93% of nurses represented by CRONA voted to authorize the strike earlier this month after their labor contract with Stanford expired March 31. The strike is CRONA's first in more than two decades, according to the union.

"A strike has always been the last resort for CRONA nurses, but we are prepared to stand strong and make sacrifices today for the transformative changes that the nursing profession and our patients need," said CRONA President Colleen Borges on Monday. Borges is a pediatric oncology nurse at Packard Children's.

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A survey conducted by CRONA in November found that 45% of Stanford nurses considered leaving due to a lack of resources, training and support staff.

Stanford Health Care Chief Nurse Executive Dale Beatty and Stanford Children's Health Senior Vice President Jesus Cepero said in a joint statement that they respect the union's right to strike, but argued that Stanford will be forced to reduce some services and reschedule elective procedures during the strike, even after securing replacement nurses for the two hospitals.

The two executives also argued that Stanford's most recent contract offer to CRONA was sufficient, offering increased wages, student loan repayment assistance and incentive payments for nurses in units with high turnover rates.

"We continue to work toward an agreement with CRONA on a contract that our nurses can support and be proud of," Beatty and Cepero said. "Our nurses are exceptional, and we strive to recognize and reward their enormous contributions."

"Nobody wants to strike," ICU cardiac nurse Kimberley Reed told KQED. "Because it's not good for hospitals. It’s not good for nurses. It's not good for our patients."

But Reed said she’ll be at the bargaining table to fight for better retirement benefits and to make sure that patients get the best care — and part of that, she said, is making sure nurses also get the mental health care they need.

"A lot of [workers] are paying for mental health services out of their pockets," she said. "And I think with the death of Michael Odell ... that actually did something to a lot of people." Odell was a 27-year-old traveling nurse who was working at Stanford Health Care in January when he died by an apparent suicide.

"We had been bringing these [mental health] issues to light even before the tragic death of one of our colleagues," Fred Taleghani, a nurse at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and a member of the union's negotiation team, told KQED before the strike began.

The hospitals' existing employee assistance program, Taleghani said, "was taking upwards [of] four to six weeks to even get an appointment with a therapist. And [for] anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, you need help immediately. A month from now, a month and a half from now — it doesn't work."

Taleghani said the union is asking for creative workarounds to get the hospitals to improve mental health care options for workers.

"We're asking for $1,750 that [a] nurse can reimburse up to 80% of their outside mental health expenses with," he said. "Mental health is a really personal issue, and you have to have a therapist that you connect with — and a randomly assigned therapist from a large company ... is just not workable."

Hospitals plan to cut striking workers' benefits

Stanford Health and Packard Children's announced earlier this month that they would cut striking workers' health care benefits as of May 1. Stanford executives Beatty and Cepero said doing so is "standard national practice," as health care benefits from an employer are generally only provided to those who are actively working.

"This standard practice is not unique to our hospitals and applies to any of our employees who are not working, are on unpaid status, and are not on an approved leave," they said.

State legislators representing parts of the peninsula have called on Stanford to resolve the contract dispute.

In a joint letter Friday to Stanford Health Care President and CEO David Entwistle and Packard Children's President and CEO Paul King, Assemblymembers Ash Kalra (D-San José) and Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) and state Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo) called it "unconscionable" that the two hospitals would cut health care benefits for striking workers and suggested it was a tactic to break the picket line.

The legislators and CRONA also have noted that Stanford Health Care and Packard Children's have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding — Stanford Health Care's financial disclosure for the end of the 2021 fiscal year reported that revenue for the two hospitals grew 16% to a combined $8.3 billion.

"Cutting off the health care for these frontline health care workers and their families after they have carried us through a pandemic is not only unnecessary — it is cruel and out of step with the values Stanford and Packard publicly advertise," Kalra, Berman and Becker said. "Having received generous federal funding the last two years, Stanford and Packard health care should not be playing games with nurses' health care benefits."

CRONA has yet to announce an end date for the strike and plans to continue bargaining with Stanford Health executives.

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This story includes reporting from Eli Walsh of Bay City News, KQED's Sukey Lewis and KQED's April Dembosky.

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