Sutter workers picket psych hospital, authorize strike

NewsNovember 13, 2023

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With TV news cameras rolling, workers at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry began a pre-dawn informational picket to let the public know that Sutter Health has been denying them a fair contract while allowing conditions to deteriorate inside Sacramento County’s only nonprofit psychiatric hospital.

During more than four hours of picketing that was covered by the Sacramento Bee and Fox-40, the approximately 150 workers — including mental health therapists, social workers, licensed vocational nurses, housekeepers, kitchen staff and patient care support specialists — voted to authorize a strike if they can’t quickly reach an agreement with Sutter. The one-day strike is scheduled for December 6.

“We’re constantly being put in harm’s way, and patients are not getting the same level of care,” said Wes Moore, a patient care support specialist, who has worked at the hospital for six years. “COVID threw everything upside down. We’re getting much more difficult patients, and we don’t have the staffing levels to meet everyone’s needs. When I first started there was never a problem with people wanting to come to work, but we’ve lost a lot of good workers, and a lot of us are burning out.”

After the early morning picket, workers returned for an afternoon picket that included a rally with remarks from Sacramento Councilmembers Katie Valenzuela and Karina Talamantes and Assembly candidate Paula Villescaz. Councilmember Mai Vang and Assembly candidate Sean Frame joined workers during the morning picket.

The Sutter Center for Psychiatry is the only non-profit psychiatric hospital in Sacramento County and a key component of Sacramento County’s behavioral healthcare system. Owned by Sutter Health, the 73-bed hospital contracts with the county to provide care for adults and children with serious mental health conditions. Medi-Cal recipients account for 57 percent of patients admitted to the hospital.

“We’re working with people who have the highest level of need, and we need to be able to have the staff to provide that service,” Alton Wood, a social worker at the hospital told Fox-40

Workers joined NUHW two years ago to address low pay and have more say in the care they provide. As patient acuity levels have increased since the start of COVID, workers report that there’s often not enough staff on duty to provide adequate care. In a recent survey, 79 percent of respondents reported experiencing understaffing at least once a week, while 58 percent reported experiencing unsafe situations at work due to understaffing.

Despite reporting a combined $477 million operating profits in 2021 and 2022, Sutter continues to insist on the right to unilaterally cut healthcare benefits. The company stopped providing annual raises after workers formed a union and, after 18 months of contract bargaining, it is offering to increase annual raises by just 2.25 percent — not enough to keep up with rising prices, forcing more workers to find jobs elsewhere.

“We do this work because we want to help people, and we formed a union so we could keep dedicated caregivers and have more say in the care we provide,” said Moore, who specializes in working with children at the hospital. “Sutter doesn’t seem to share our mission. It feels like they want to punish us, instead of working with us to make things better.”