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Local nurses say hospital staffing is dangerously insufficient

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As pandemic surges have come and gone over the past two years, health care providers have been on the front lines of it all. An already stressful profession became even more taxing, leading some nurses to leave the profession altogether.

PROTESTING FOR CHANGE Sierra Vista nurses took to the street on April 27 to demand better staffing at Tenet Health hospitals. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • PROTESTING FOR CHANGE Sierra Vista nurses took to the street on April 27 to demand better staffing at Tenet Health hospitals.

According to the California Nurses Association, Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton lost 40 percent of the nurses that were hired between 2019 and 2021.

But Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center RN Amber Wiehl is hesitant to blame retention issues on pandemic burnout: She thinks there are things the hospital system can and should be doing to keep its nurses around.

"Long before the current trend of calling it 'burnout,' our profession as a whole has been a physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging profession," Wiehl said. "Then when you add on stressful working conditions, that are not necessary, such as short staffing, workplace violence, lack of respect from administration, that just causes moral distress on the nurses and leads to leaving the workplace or the profession."

Nurses at nine Tenet Health-owned hospitals across the state, including SLO County's Twin Cities and Sierra Vista hospitals, took up signs on April 27 to raise awareness of understaffing and high turnover rates and demand change.

Fifteen minutes after the action began, more than 50 nurses and other supporters had assembled on Santa Rosa Street outside Sierra Vista. Passing cars honked in support as the nurses held up signs with messages like "Patients over profits" and "One strong union."

Erika Marcenaro, a Sierra Vista RN, told New Times that the hospital frequently exceeds nurse-to-patient ratios established by California law. Marcenaro is a float nurse, so she works in a variety of units within the hospital.

"I find it to [happen] at least twice a week on any given unit that I float," Marcenaro said.

When staffing is short, "We cannot go to the bathroom, we cannot have lunches," she said.

Jillian Bonds, a Sierra Vista RN and representative with the California Nurses Association, said there's been a 50 percent increase in penalty pay—pay for missed breaks—over the last couple years.

"Tenet has made $990 million in profit over the pandemic," Bonds said. "We really want Tenet to put patient care over profits."

RN Wiehl said she'd like to see Tenet Health put more effort into recruitment, but put an even bigger focus on retention.

"There will always be an influx and outflux with retirees," Wiehl said. "But I think that the hospital really needs to focus on retention because once the nurses are there and trained and experienced, losing those nurses is such a bigger kind of hit to the units and the environment that we work in."

In a statement, Tenet Health Central Coast said, "While we value all of our nurses who are represented by the union, we are disappointed that the union is taking this action. We are currently negotiating with the union, bargaining in good faith to reach an agreement.

"Like many hospitals across the country, we have been facing staffing challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, and we remain committed to doing everything possible to stay well-staffed," the statement continued. "To support our care teams, we have been exercising all options available to us." Δ

In a previous version of this story, New Times referred to the union action at Sierra Vista as a "picket." While informational pickets occurred at other Tenet Health hospitals on April 27, the California Nurses Association clarified that the event at Sierra Vista was a public action, not a picket. New Times regrets this error.

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