Even with sweltering heat and smoke-filled skies above, over a hundred caregivers at West Anaheim Medical Center held fast yesterday and walked the picket line in front of the hospital. Represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the striking staffers cited unsafe conditions on the job due to short staffing and low wages as chief reasons for the 24-hour walkout.
The strike, a first ever at West Anaheim Medical Center, follows an informational picket that took place last month . Negotiations broke down when Prime Healthcare Services, who operates the facility, refused to meet the union’s demand for a 24 percent wage increase. The way NUHW tells it, Prime representatives informed workers at the bargaining table that they “had the option to leave” and find work elsewhere. Many, like Jeanne Waite, who needs the health insurance offered by her job in order to pay for her husband’s cancer treatment, felt the option offered is no option at all.
Last year, West Anaheim Medical Center reported $28 million in operating profits, making it the third most profitable Prime-operated hospital in Southern California. But the medical center’s workers earn wages that are 30-60 percent below the standards at other Prime Healthcare-owned hospitals in Orange County. “The company has offered us a 16 percent raise over the last 3 years,” says Tony Napoli, a respiratory technician at the hospital. “That sounds significant, but put those numbers against the 30-60 percent and it doesn’t even bridge the gap half way. It’s sad when you have a full time job working for a multi-million dollar corporation and you can’t make ends meet.”
Amy Buntjer, an MRI technician for the past 14 years at West Anaheim Medical Center, says she has not seen a raise in the last decade. “It becomes difficult because the cost of living goes up and our pay doesn’t go along with it,” she says. “Everyone in the industry that does these jobs that we do, they’re making a lot more than we are. They’re at standard, but we aren’t even up to that yet. It makes me sad that we’re treated with such disrespect.”
Prior to yesterday’s strike, Prime took the extraordinary step of threatening a five-day lockout against anyone who walked out on strike, a move that would’ve left patients in the care of temporary workers. But the company did an about-face on Tuesday and backed off the lockout threat. NUHW estimates the lockout would’ve cost Prime $1 million.
The strike started at 6 a.m. on Thursday and ended this morning at that same time. Taking a break from the picket line, a midday rally was held with union representatives and local politicians in attendance. The Orange County Labor Federation, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3930, and faith leaders from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) all showed up in solidarity.
Prime isn’t only facing pressure from Anaheim workers demanding better pay, but also from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Just last week, Prime settled a lawsuit with the DOJ that alleged they intentionally admitted Medicare patients who only required less expensive outpatient care at 14 of their hospitals, including West Anaheim Medical Center. Prime agreed to pay $61.75 million, with founder and CEO Dr. Prem Reddy doling out $3.25 million.
After the strike, negotiations are set to continue next Wednesday. Workers say that they are tired of budging on their demands. “We hope to get our 24 percent that we’re asking for,” says Waite. “We’re not going to go any less.”