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Workers at Oakland Children's Hospital Stage 1-Day Strike, Demanding Better Working Conditions and Services

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Hundreds of protestors in red T-shirts hold red and yellow picket signs outside of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
Over 100 employees and their supporters gather for a rally outside UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland on April 19, 2023, during a one-day strike authorized by more than 1,200 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Hundreds of workers at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland walked off the job Wednesday in a one-day strike over job security and protecting medical services in the East Bay, chanting, “UC, UC, you can’t hide … We can see your greedy side!”

Vocational nurses, mental health staff, physical therapists and housekeepers were among the broad swath of workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who formed an early morning picket line as the sun rose outside the North Oakland hospital — in what the union is calling the largest strike in the hospital’s history.

The workers have been without contracts since last year, amid stalled negotiations with UCSF Health, which took over most hospital operations in 2014.

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Since then, the union says, UCSF has cut crucial services and failed to adequately invest in its workforce, resulting in severe staffing shortages in some departments and reduced access to a variety of programs and procedures that many lower-income East Bay families have long relied on.

“Job security is the one thing that seems at the heart of all of this,” said Susana Yerian, a Spanish medical interpreter who translates for families who come in for pediatric surgery. “We just want to be able to provide care and not have anxiety about losing our job or not having a job.”

Fears of further cutbacks have only increased after UCSF recently projected a $200 million budget shortfall in 2023 and warned that it must “operate more efficiently,” according to the union.

Throngs of protestors in red T-shirts hold red and yellow picket signs outside of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
Hospital employees and supporters gather for a rally outside UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland on April 19, 2023, during a one-day strike authorized by more than 1,200 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers at the Oakland and Walnut Creek hospitals. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We’re understaffed, and patients are underserved,” said Stephanie Lum Ho, an office associate at the hospital’s Walnut Creek outpatient center, where workers also picketed on Wednesday.

Along with a push for expanded services at the facility, the union says UCSF has rejected its key demands that workers receive the same compensation as their counterparts at UCSF facilities in San Francisco and be guaranteed comparable jobs if the company takes full control of the hospital.

Wednesday’s walkout follows a long succession of recent local and national labor actions, particularly in the health care sector, including a 10-week strike last fall waged by Kaiser Permanente mental health workers in Northern California, and a shorter walkout in late December among registered nurses at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and Berkeley.

Jackie Schalit, a children’s mental health clinician at the hospital and part of the union’s bargaining team, says staffing in her department has been slashed in half under UCSF’s leadership, with a growing number of programs squeezed, shut down altogether or relocated to offices in San Francisco.

“We love the population that we work with. We love the kids,” she said. “But to be disrespected by UCSF, and to be told they know better than the folks on the front lines, is just really, really upsetting.”

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is one of five Level One pediatric trauma centers in California; the hospital accepts all patients no matter their income level or insurance status, and more than 70% of patients get their health coverage through Medi-Cal.

Schalit, who has worked at the hospital for more than 20 years, said she was drawn to the Oakland institution for the community-centered services it has historically provided.

“I felt so proud to work there. And it’s changed,” she said, noting that many of her young patients now have to wait months for services like occupational therapy — and are forced to travel to San Francisco for an increasing number of other basic services, like speech therapy.

Throngs of protestors in red T-shirts hold red and yellow picket signs outside of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
A rally outside UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland on April 19, 2023. Workers staged a one-day strike demanding better working conditions and preserving services in the East Bay for their patients. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“How do you afford that? That’s not easy for a family that’s impacted by lots of different things,” Schalit said.

The hospital will continue to provide critical health care services throughout the day, with the help of replacement staff, and its emergency room will remain open, but all outpatient services throughout the region will be closed, UCSF said in a statement.

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In the statement, UCSF also said it had made its “last, best, and final offer” to the union on Friday, one that would provide most NUHW-represented employees a pay increase of at least 13%. The company said it had also agreed to most of the union’s job-security and enhanced severance demands.

“We worked hard to develop a proposal that honors the excellent work of our employees while preserving our ability to continue caring for children in our community,” UCSF said. “We’re disappointed the union rejected our final offer late Sunday night and is choosing to engage in a costly and disruptive strike.”

The union’s claim that UCSF was not committed to serving Oakland and East Bay communities was “simply not true,” the company said. It noted that the number of NUHW-represented employees at the hospital has steadily increased since 2018 and that UCSF is now investing $1.5 billion in modernizing its Oakland facilities and constructing a new hospital building to expand services.

This story includes reporting from KQED’s April Dembosky.

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