Nurses raise a stink

Amid layoffs and labor negotiations, nurses at odds with Oroville Hospital

About 50 employees of Oroville Hospital, including nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, and X-ray lab techs, were laid off last month.

About 50 employees of Oroville Hospital, including nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, and X-ray lab techs, were laid off last month.

Last month, Julie Auletta, a registered nurse from Palermo, was one of about 50 Oroville Hospital employees who were laid off.

She’s also a member of the California Nurses Association, which is currently in labor negotiations with the hospital. The union has questioned the manner in which the nurses were let go, decrying a lack of transparency during the process and insisting the layoffs have already negatively affected patient care. Oroville Hospital administration, meanwhile, steadfastly maintains that lines of communication are open and patient services remain unchanged.

In early February, Auletta’s manager informed her that Oroville Hospital was facing financial issues, and that all employees were to be mindful of “every dollar spent,” she said. Shortly thereafter, she was laid off via a phone call from the Human Resources Department.

“Any employee who has been there for any length of time requires a notice,” Auletta said. “We all should have got some kind of notice, and none of us did.”

“The problem is the layoffs were done suddenly and with no notice, no paperwork,” agreed Jim Cardwell, a registered nurse going on 25 years with Oroville Hospital.

The layoffs included nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, and X-ray lab techs. In the context of Oroville Hospital’s 1,400 employees, 50 layoffs represents just a 3.5 percent reduction of staff, and fewer than 10 of those employees were nurses, said Jessica Montoya, the hospital’s human resources manager. “Of all the employee groups, nurses were the least affected,” she said.

But the nurses are certainly raising the biggest stink. The California Nurses Association has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and is organizing an informational picket outside Oroville Hospital Friday (March 28) from 4 to 9 p.m.

Sean Bartlett, a labor representative for the nurses, said that the crux of the issue is patient care. “The hospital was very ambiguous on the details of the way it restructured,” he said. “The more things become clear, the more things come to the surface; these cuts are definitely going to hurt the community and the patients of Oroville Hospital,” he said.

Each June, the hospital receives about $9 million from provider fees through the state, said Oroville Hospital CEO Robert Wentz. This year, however, the payment was delayed until January, and the disruption in cash flow was “significant enough to make some adjustments to the operation,” he said. Wentz acknowledged the layoffs came about quickly.

“We determined who was going to be effected in a period of about three weeks,” he said, “and we let them know as soon as we could.”

In an interview with Action News Now on Feb. 24, Montoya categorized the personnel decisions as restructuring in the name of efficiency. “We’re always looking at jobs to restructure positions so that we can continue to meet the demands of health care and also to streamline our operations,” she said. Montoya was clear that the layoffs wouldn’t impede the hospital’s ability to treat patients: “We’re not going to be in a position where we can’t continue to provide excellent care.”

But many of the employees who were laid off—and some still working for the hospital—maintain otherwise. Cardwell had just gotten off his third straight 12-hour night shift when he spoke with CN&R. “In every department, the ability to care for patients has become sharply restricted,” he said.

Cardwell questioned whether the hospital has maintained nurse-to-patient ratios required by state law—one nurse for every five patients in most departments—since the layoffs, noting that he’s observed colleagues taking on increasingly heavy workloads.

“There are longer patient waits and fewer people get processed,” he said.

When pressed on how the ratios are enforced, Cardwell said that the system depends on nurses filing formal complaints when the ratios are not met. “But there is an air of intimidation from upper management, so many people are unwilling to make the complaints, fill out the paperwork and speak out because, darn it, you need a job.”

In her six years at Oroville Hospital, Auletta said, administration “tried very hard” to meet the ratios. “If they were unable to call staff in, they would discharge patients,” she said. “I remember one day, they were eight nurses short. They discharged a lot of patients that day.”

However, Wentz said the hospital has maintained the same nurse-to-staff ratios throughout the layoff process. “There is absolutely no difference in how we are treating our patients—it’s still quality patient care. All California hospitals are required to maintain the nursing ratios, and we’ve done that for years. That’s never been an issue.”

He also emphasized that patients at Oroville Hospital are never released prematurely to free up space or meet the ratio requirements. “Patients are discharged when they are no longer acutely ill,” he said. “Our hospital has been very busy for years, but no, that’s not a way we manage staffing.”

As for the picketing that will soon be taking place outside of his hospital, Wentz said it’s the nurses’ right to make themselves heard as labor negotiations continue. “I don’t think that it’s something that’s largely supported by staff,” he said. “I think our current employees understand that we’re still providing good-quality care, that we needed to make some adjustments in order to be sustainable, and I think the employees are good with it.”

A bargaining process is outlined in the hospital’s agreement with the California Nurses Association, Auletta explained. If nurses have a grievance, they present it to hospital administration, which then has seven days to schedule a meeting with the union and the nurses who filed the complaint. By the nurses’ account, hospital administration has refused such a meeting since the layoffs.

“They have taken this directly to their attorneys and refuse to step to the bargaining table,” Auletta said.

As such, the charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board are related to “moving forward unilaterally with things they should have negotiated with the union first, refusing to provide information and general union-busting tactics,” Bartlett said. He believes the nurses’ case is strong, particularly regarding a lack of communication on the hospital’s part. “I have a hard time believing a whole bunch of money was suddenly just not there anymore,” he said. “Somebody should have known this ahead of time.”

From here, the labor board will decide whether to move forward with the charges, a process with an uncertain timeframe, Bartlett said. In the event that the hospital and the union don’t reach an agreement, it’s possible the case could reach federal court.