Business & Economy

USC hospital caregivers hold 1-day strike over pay, conditions

Roxana Medrano, a respiratory therapist at USC's Keck Medical Center, spins a noisemaker at a protest outside the facility on Wednesday.
Roxana Medrano, a respiratory therapist at USC's Keck Medical Center, spins a noisemaker at a protest outside the facility on Wednesday.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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About 100 healthcare workers at USC Keck Medical Center in Lincoln Heights staged a 24-hour strike Wednesday to protest a one-year pay freeze and conditions that they say compromise patients' care.

Keck is one of several medical facilities that surround LA County-USC Medical Center. About a hundred healthcare workers marched and chanted outside the center, holding signs and cheering when passing cars honked horns in support.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers represents about 650 hospital technicians, respiratory therapists, nurses’ assistants and others at USC’s Keck Medical Center. The workers say too often, they have too many patients.

“We call it hit-and-run care," said Michael Torres, a respiratory therapist who says he's worked at the hospital for nearly 20 years. "They don’t have enough quality time to spend with the patients. Patients get shortchanged and mistakes happen and usually the care givers end up injured.”

Torres said he feels the hospital is taking in more patients than its employees can handle.

“They’ve been trying to sneak in more patients to us, which means we have to basically cut corners," he said. "And that’s a problem for us because basically we are robbing the patient of adequate quality care that they are supposed to have.”

When asked if he felt the facility is providing inadequate care, Torres replied, “Yes, there is and that’s why we’re here. We want it fixed.”

USC Keck Medical Center spokesman Matthew McElrath begs to differ.

“We have a wonderful reputation for delivering great care for the patients and the families we serve here and we intend to continue to do that," he said.

“We believe our patients and families get exceptional care here. We don’t anticipate that changing. We want to continue to work with our colleagues here to get them back to work and get the matter resolved. We’re delivering great care yesterday, we’re going to continue today and we’re going to do it tomorrow.”

The healthcare workers also say hospital administrators want to freeze salaries at a time when the medical center is bringing in a lot of money. McElrath declined to comment on that claim.

“I don’t really want to get into the details of the contract negotiations. As we’ve said to them, that needs to happen at the table and our goal is to get back to the table as soon as possible so we can get the contract completed and the matter resolved. We want them back to work.”

The hospital's administration said it had a plan to provide services despite the strike, and it disputed the union's characterization of the dispute, saying union negotiators have not previously raised concerns about patient safety.

"We have activated a plan to ensure smooth operations and the safe working environment that our patients, families and employees expect from us every day," said hospital CEO Mitch Creem, adding that the plan includes "adequate, qualified staffing" and extra security.

Creem said employees covered by the National Union of Healthcare Workers receive a competitive wage and benefits package and are "among the highest paid in the region."

"At a time when many competitors are demanding concessions, we have offered numerous enhancements," he said.

USC acquired the hospital from Tenet Healthcare in 2009. This is the first time USC and the Healthcare Workers have negotiated a contract.

The healthcare workers have been working with USC Keck administrators on a new contract for 14 months. The healthcare workers say the National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on their allegations of unfair labor practices by the hospital.

The hospital reached a deal with the California Nurses Association earlier this year.