Last Friday, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 announced that it had reached an agreement for a three-year contract covering 7,000 nurses in Los Angeles County. Although full details have not been released, it is clear that the agreement does not meet any of the nurses’ demands for substantial salary increases and drastic improvements in the stressful working conditions caused by staff shortages. and overwork.
Meanwhile, a three-day strike that had been set for Wednesday June 1 has been called off. Such a strike would encompass workers at four Los Angeles County hospitals, as well as dozens of county clinics.
The nurses are part of a larger bargaining unit comprising 55,000 Los Angeles County employees. A tentative agreement for these other workers had been negotiated two weeks earlier. The agreed wage increase for county workers, a raise of just 12% over three years, does not keep up with inflation, which now stands at 8.5% a year and hits food costs particularly hard , fuel and accommodation.
The agreement with the Los Angeles County nurses contains an additional 3% pay increase over other workers in the county, totaling 15% over three years, plus double the overtime. The increase, although slightly better, is still well below the official inflation rate. It is doubly inadequate given that county nurses and workers have had no pay raises since the pandemic began.
The increases do nothing to solve the staffing crisis affecting all public and private hospitals due to stress, overwork and low salaries. The chronic shortage of nurses has been significantly worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
SEIU Local 721 President David Green, when announcing the end of negotiations, did not mention wages, focusing only on nurses’ working conditions, including forced overtime.
In a statement intended to divide nurses and cover up the union’s abject betrayal, Green denounced the use of “travelling nurses” brought in from other states, often at higher salaries than county-employed nurses. “They earn more than our nurses,” he says. “So you might have a nurse making $2,000 more than the nurse next door. And it’s not just with the nurses, it’s also with other departments. It’s the county’s dirty little secret, and we want people to know it.
After saying it was a “historic deal,” Green said county officials were ultimately constrained by tough negotiations and the threat of a SEIU strike to address the shortage of nurses in hospitals. of the county and to reduce the use of traveling nurses. Echoing her words, negotiator Cynthia Mitchell said the results of these negotiations send a signal to all “aspiring nurses” that the county “is serious and committed to recruiting.”
Staffing issues are not new, as the shortage of nurses has a long history in California and across the United States. With the ongoing pandemic, the shortage is reaching a breaking point.
In March 2020, the California Department of Public Health agreed to pay a for-profit traveling nurse provider $1 billion over six months to help hospitals deal with nursing shortages.
Meanwhile, also in 2020, a strike by nurses in Los Angeles and Riverside County was sabotaged by the SEIU.
In September 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law emergency provisions to ensure adequate staffing, including the use of traveling nurses.
However, the above “solutions” for the Los Angeles County nurse staffing crisis are contributing to staffing crises at hospitals elsewhere in the Los Angeles area and across the country.
Many factors influence the shortage of nurses. Among them, the closure of nursing schools and a immigrant visa backlog for internationally educated nurses.
In an article of May 26, the Los Angeles Times quoted nurses who expressed concern in the current struggle.
“I wasn’t sure until the time of the agreement that we wouldn’t go on strike,” said Del Valle Thompson, 70. “We didn’t want to strike, but we would have done so if necessary.”
“The county didn’t like us or take us seriously after everything we did during the pandemic,” said Markeitha Harris, a public health nurse. “It wasn’t right, and we were ready to strike.”
Harris said during the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she purchased her own N95 masks when county supplies were low. She delayed her vacation and worked all but two days on a recent vacation that was supposed to last two weeks, she said.
All county workers represented by the SEIU will vote on both agreements on June 16. Workers must demand the publication of all the details of the proposed contract and be prepared to reject any agreement that does not meet their fundamental demands for a real increase in wages and a safe and healthy working environment.