Sutter workers strike again in Sacramento with Dolores Huerta in attendance

NewsApril 25, 2024

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Kenisha Campbell does just about everything one can do at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry, a 73-bed psychiatric hospital in her hometown of Sacramento.

As a unit secretary and patient care support specialist, Campbell takes vital signs, does urinalysis, helps patients bathe and brush their teeth and performs welfare checks as often as every five minutes. When a patient is a threat to themselves or others, Campbell, who’s not quite five-feet tall, and her fellow care specialists have to intervene to keep everyone safe.

Yet, for all her responsibilities, Campbell makes less than $25 per hour, which makes it hard to help pay rent and support her family. And after nearly three years of contract negotiations, Campbell and her coworkers, who include approximately 150 social workers, licensed vocational nurses, kitchen staff, and housekeepers, hit the streets in April for a three-day strike, their first work stoppage since a one-day strike last December.

“We haven’t had a raise in three years,” said Campbell, who lives in Sacramento with her husband and four children. “A lot of us are doing double shifts and working on our days off because we’re living paycheck to paycheck and we’re so short-staffed.”

The strike was covered by KCRA-3, KOVR-13, and Capital Public Radio. On Wednesday, union icon Dolores Huerta, in Sacramento to celebrate her 94th birthday, addressed workers on the picket line. “Get some of these so-called people who run these hospitals and … have them come down and do your work for a day and see how much money that they would ask for…” Huerta said to cheers.

She added that “The whole hospital system is broken. They’re trying to make money off of your backs. Maybe we’re not trying to fix the whole system right now, but this is a good first step. To let them know… without you they cannot continue to make their millions. Without you the whole system will break down. I just want to congratulate you for your courage, your stamina, your dedication, your commitment, and your staying power.”

Campbell and her colleagues formed a union in 2021 to address low pay and have more say in patient care. 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 union 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.

Sutter reported a combined $477 million operating profit in 2021 and 2022, but the healthcare giant is insisting on eliminating the free healthcare plan that workers have had for years and making them pay progressively more for their health care throughout the term of the contract.

Meanwhile, the company has insisted on paying workers below market wages, especially the patient care specialists, who are demanding stronger wage increases in order to safely staff the facility, which serves both adults and children with serious mental health conditions.

“I’m almost ashamed to people how much money I make, and that I’ve been with Sutter for this long,” Ruby Locke, a patient care specialist who has worked for the company her entire career, told Capitol Public Radio. “I feel like my work is not appreciated and paid fairly.”