an SEIU strike
Karen Joubert, a staffing coordinator at Laguna Honda Hospital and SEIU 1021 shop steward., leads a February 2016 march in front of San Francisco General Hospital.

Union staff and hospital workers on Thursday revived a long-standing dispute over staffing levels at San Francisco General Hospital.

About 200 workers and members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 picketed outside the hospital’s entrance at noon, calling for administrators to end a nurse shortage that has persisted for about 10 years, they said. The hospital will soon open its new facilities, named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but protesters said that existing departments are already in a dire state and need attention now.

“We don’t want to take a decade-long problem and move it into this brand new facility,” said Larry Bradshaw, vice president of Local 1021 in San Francisco.

During the protest, the churning crowd of picketers chanted, “What do we want?” “Safe Staffing!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

The protesters claim current staffing levels put patients at risk of receiving inadequate care and can force individual nurses to work long hours to help out when patient volumes are too high for the scheduled workers to handle.

Nurse Jason Negron-Gonzales, 39, who has worked in the hospital’s emergency department for five years, recalled a grim shift back in 2014. As the sun was about to come up and he prepared to clock out, two ambulances rolled in at the same time bearing patients who had attempted suicide. One man had cut his own throat, and the other had tried to drown himself by jumping off a pier.

There were four nurses available at the time. They wheeled the men into different rooms and split into pairs to tend to them. Negron-Gonzalez said 10 patients would have been left unattended if he and a handful of other nurses hadn’t decided to stay on the clock.

“This happens day to day,” Negron-Gonzales said. “You can get more than one sick patient at any time, and then you need the staff there and ready.”

David Canham, who will soon negotiate to expand nurse staffing on behalf of Local 1021, said that multiple departments throughout San Francisco General are out of compliance with Title 22 California Code of Regulations, which specifies how many nurses hospitals must keep on staff. The state law requires hospitals to keep enough nurses so that each has no more than a set maximum of patients at any given moment, and those thresholds vary based on the setting, the patients’ conditions and other factors.

Department of Public Health spokesperson Rachel Kagan would not comment about whether the hospital was violating Title 22, though she said the department and union representatives will get a chance to talk about this soon. A hospital spokesperson also declined to comment in response to the claim. The hospital’s website shows job openings for nurses, but it’s unclear how many will be hired, and in what time frame.

Canham said that Mayor Ed Lee could fix the problem by increasing the hospital’s budget. “The buck stops with the mayor,” he said.

Negron-Gonzales said that in 2014, the hospital’s emergency department was violating state staffing regulations multiple times every day. Since then, more nurses have joined the staff and now he only occasionally has more patients than he’s supposed to. But he said he worries that when the new facility opens, the hospital will merely transfer its current nurses into it instead of training new ones, causing the problem to return.

“We look forward to discussing this topic with the nurses at the bargaining table,” Kagan said.

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