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Sutter Health employees demand safety protections as union negotiations stall

The Magno family strikes in front of Sutter Health Van Ness Campus on April 18, 2022. | Camille Cohen

More than 200 nurses protested in front of Sutter Health’s Van Ness campus on Monday demanding safety protections after negotiations between corporate representatives and local union leaders failed to yield an agreement.  

Members of California Nurses Association—the local chapter of National Nurses United, which represents Sutter Health nurses at the bargaining table—said there are not enough staff and safety protections to meet demands at the hospital, and that their requests still haven’t been met. Negotiations began in June 2021, union members said. 

Erin Smith, a Sutter nurse, holds a tired Ignacio, while she patiently explains the reason for the strike in front of Sutter Health on April 18, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Nurses at the Van Ness hospital joined around 8,000 of their colleagues across 15 Northern California Sutter Health campuses in a one-day protest.

“We’re hoping that this action today tells our employers exactly how serious we are about our proposals and what we need from them so that they come back to the table with something meaningful to offer us,” said Amy Erb, a nurse and union negotiator for National Nurses United.

Dressed in matching red masks and pins, the hundreds of nurses danced in the medians between the new red bus lanes on Van Ness, holding signs asking for cars to honk in support. Some wore scrubs, others red T-shirts and many donned face paint and 49ers or San Francisco-themed clothes, bringing their kids or dogs in tow.

More than 200 nurses protested in front of Sutter Health’s Van Ness campus on April 18, 2022, while some Sutter Health employees watched from inside the building. | Camille Cohen

Horns from passing cars on ever-busy Van Ness blared as a rotation of union organizers and local officials, including District Attorney Chesa Boudin, spoke over the crowds of hundreds of Sutter Health nurses. State assembly candidates Matt Haney and David Campos were also in attendance. 

The nurses were in high spirits, even talking of getting mimosas and making the best of a strike day. But when reminded of their patients, they were stressed about how those in their care will hold up during the walkout.

In a statement today, Sutter Health echoed these concerns, responding to the protests saying union leaders are putting “politics above patients and the nurses they represent” by missing work, but that the hospital system can still handle its caseload as thousands of nurses protest in the state. Due to a 10-day notice legally required for a strike, the hospital can arrange temporary contracts with replacement staff who agree to work five days during a work stoppage, a Sutter Health spokesperson wrote in an email to The Standard. 

“We are confident in our ability to manage this disruption,” Sutter Health’s statement reads. 

Maddy Zemora, a union organizer and Sutter Health nurse spoke over the crowds of hundreds of Sutter nurses on April 18, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Sutter Health also sent information about its employee benefits and salaries, calling them “competitive” at $140,000 per year on average with up to 41 paid days off per year. According to Sutter Health, the health system has secured more than 165 million pieces of personal protective equipment. 

But Erb and her colleagues said the safety supplies have not reached their hands. During the height of the pandemic, nurses said that masks and protective equipment were in short supply and that they paid for their own testing. Erb said she has not yet been offered Covid testing from her employer, despite Cal/OSHA recommendations to do weekly surveillance testing. 

“Sutter always meets the bare minimum,” Erb said.

More than 200 nurses protested in front of Sutter Health’s Van Ness campus on April 18, 2022, while some Sutter Health employees watched from inside the building. | Camille Cohen

Staffing remains an issue at the Van Ness location. Wesley Van Dyken, also a nurse and a bargaining representative, said nurses are asked to work 12- to 16-hour shifts, sometimes without a break, because there isn’t enough staff to relieve them. Van Dyken also disputed Sutter Health’s workers’ compensation practices during the Covid pandemic, saying that it doesn’t presume eligibility if a worker contracts Covid. 

“Right now, they are fighting nurses that are getting Covid, they do a whole investigation, and think ‘maybe you got it outside of the workplace,’” Van Dyken said.