Healthcare workers at Riverside Community Hospital took to the picket line Friday morning to protest what they say are unsafe staffing levels at the facility. The hospital says staffing is in line with other community hospitals.

Dozens of healthcare workers represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West picketed Friday morning outside of Riverside Community Hospital as their contract with HCA Healthcare expired.

“We’re out here because we want HCA and RCH to know that we mean business when it comes to safe staffing and safe staffing ratios, making sure that we’re able to advocate the best for our patients, and make sure that they get nothing but the best,” Raymond Valdivia, a lab assistant, said.

Healthcare workers chanted as they walked up and down Magnolia raising awareness and garnering support from the public on Friday, March 31. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

For much of the afternoon, the picket line resembled a party with music blasting as healthcare workers and allies danced, chanted and held up signs with slogans such as, “Too many patients. Not enough caregivers,” “Our hospital is: understaffed,” and “Caregivers are: overworked,” as cars driving down Magnolia honked in support.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Gaby Plascencia, one of a number of elected officials who stopped by to show their support, called it “serendipity” that the union’s most recent contract expired on César Chávez Day. 

Other elected officials who made appearances at the event included Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, former Assemblymember Jose Medina and Congressman Mark Takano.

“I know how hard it is to be a healthcare worker, that it is hard work, and that you’re asked to go beyond, and that you work for a corporate hospital that does not often understand, or not often, just simply doesn’t understand you,” he said to a cheering crowd. “But I’m here to stand with you, stand behind you, and to walk with you.”

Takano also talked about the reintroduction of the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act by reducing the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours, and lower the overtime threshold for most hourly and some salary workers, and the shortage of healthcare workers.

“There’s a shortage of workers, and what the workers are telling me is that they’re working double shifts, they’re working long hours, and it’s unsustainable,” he said. “My [Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act] would allow them to earn overtime after 32 hours of pay, but, you know, my bill won’t solve the shortage, it will just give workers more leverage with big corporate healthcare employers.”

Congressman Mark Takano talks to healthcare workers during a picket event outside of Riverside Community Hospital on Friday, March 31. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Nearly 90% of healthcare workers at RCH reported consistently being somewhat or severely understaffed, nearly 80% reported having insufficient time for proper patient care and more than 70% reported delays or denials of patient care due to short staffing according to a recent survey by SEIU-UHW.

“This chronic short staffing has allowed HCA Healthcare to rake in billions of dollars, resulting in huge payouts for executives and shareholders,” the union said in a statement. “In 2021, HCA reported nearly $7 billion in profits and distributed $8 billion in payouts to shareholders. Since 2011, HCA has paid out more than $32 billion to investors.”

And while negotiations between HCA and the union are expected to resume next week, speech language pathologist Bella Panchal said the process has been difficult with HCA pushing back against the union’s demands for additional staffing.

Staffing that Xochitl Gonzalez, a patient-care technician at HCA’s West Hills Hospital, said would allow her to simply do her job. Gonzalez said there have been times when she is the only technician on the floor and patients, especially those who do not have people to advocate for them and cannot advocate for themselves, end up having to wait longer for care.

“They have signs up calling us healthcare heroes,” she said. “But they need to treat us like healthcare heroes, not healthcare zeroes.”

Riverside Community Hospital released the following statement:

“At Riverside Community Hospital, we believe a strong culture of respect and collaboration among our colleagues is critical to our mission. We value all members of our care teams and we provide a safe environment for our patients, caregivers and visitors. 

Labor union negotiations are a part of our operations cycle, conducted every three years.  During each renewal period, our goal is the same: to secure a fair agreement that continues to support a culture of colleague safety, care excellence and compassion.

Our staffing is safe, appropriate, and in line with other community hospitals and applicable regulations. 

We are proud to have received many recent recognitions from Healthgrades including being recognized as one of America’s 250 Best Hospitals in the country. We live our mission each day, committing to the care and improvement of human life.”

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.