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L.A. County doctors and dentists give green light for possible strike

BY EMILY ALPERT REYESSTAFF WRITER

NOV. 22, 2023 7:57 AM PT

Physicians and dentists working at Los Angeles County-run hospitals and clinics have voted to authorize a possible strike, citing concerns about inadequate benefits and rampant vacancies.

The Union of American Physicians and Dentists represents more than 1,100 county employees in two bargaining units that gave the green light for a walkout after two weeks of voting. The workers authorized a strike in the event that their negotiating committee determined it was necessary, the union said.

The union did not announce strike dates and such an action is not guaranteed to go forward, but the vote brings its members a step closer to a walkout that could affect a range of county facilities — not just the hospitals run by the county. Among the workers represented by the UAPD are psychiatrists working in L.A. County jails, where labor leaders said vacancy rates for such professionals had run as high as 70%. With so many vacancies, “we cannot provide adequate care to inmates with unmet medical and psychiatric needs,” said Dr. Gary Pedneault, a psychiatrist at a county jail for women, in a statement.

L.A. County-run hospitals are also facing a possible strike by SEIU-United Service Workers West, whose members work for companies contracted by the county to clean and sanitize the public hospitals.

SEIU-USWW said it had notified the county Tuesday that more than 700 environmental services workers could go on strike as soon as Dec. 6. “This is not a decision we take lightly,” the union said in a letter, but “our members can not continue to be treated like a second class in their place of work.” Both groups have raised concerns about benefits and understaffing: UAPD members have faulted what they say are inadequate benefits for making it difficult to attract and retain physicians. Some physicians said they had to work long hours while pregnant to pad their maternity leave and have more time to bond with their babies.

L.A. County offers more extensive “Megaflex” benefits to some other county employees, but “the healthcare workers of Los Angeles who are the linchpin of the healthcare system ... are not being allowed to have that,” said Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the UAPD, calling it “unfair.”

“We need good health benefits to fix this recruitment and retention problem,” Bussey said. The L.A. County Department of Health Services did not promptly respond to questions about vacancy rates for medical professionals in its facilities. In a statement, it said the doctors and dentists represented by the union “already have an extensive benefits package in place” that includes “comprehensive medical, dental, and leave benefits among numerous other provisions.” County officials have estimated that providing “Megaflex” benefits to all UAPD members in the two bargaining units would cost at least $86.8 million annually. That cost “would make it prohibitive to consider such investments in wages and incentives by specialty, location and other hard-to-recruit roles for patient care,” Department of Health Services director Dr. Christina Ghaly warned county supervisors.

UAPD officials said they dispute the cost estimate and are seeking another one. Besides physicians and dentists working for the L.A. County Department of Health Services, the UAPD members weighing a strike include people employed at the Department of Mental Health, Public Health, and the Medical Examiner, among others.

The Department of Health Services said in a statement earlier this month that it was optimistic that negotiations with the UAPD would “ultimately result in a fair and amicable agreement that safeguards patient care, values healthcare workers and enhances physician recruitment and retention in County service.”

SEIU-USWW, in turn, said workers who clean L.A. County-run hospitals are not getting the health benefits that L.A. County supervisors have called for county contractors to provide for their workers as L.A. County enters into new contracts. The union also said it was concerned about understaffing.

“We are here today to demand that the county please implement the motion that was approved in April for the workers, so that we can have medical insurance,” said Amparo Diaz, who works in housekeeping at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, speaking with a Spanish-language translator to the Board of Supervisors.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, hearing the concerns, asked Tuesday for the county chief executive to update the board on the implementation of the county requirement.

The Department of Health Services said Wednesday that it was “on track to implement the policy by December 31, 2023, as required by the motion.”

It has previously estimated that requiring county contractors to fully fund healthcare coverage at the minimum levels sought by supervisors — Affordable Care Act Gold Level coverage — could increase county costs for contracted cleaning, food and security services by $6.3 million to $10 million annually. That number could be higher if contractors pass along more costs than expected, it said.


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