South California healthcare workers plan payment, safety protest during Tenet Healthcare investor meeting

Workers from three Tenet Healthcare-owned facilities in Southern California are planning a public demonstration to protest issues around low wages, understaffing and unsafe work conditions.

The rally is set to be held outside of Fountain Valley Regional Hospital from 11:00 a.m. to noon on May 6 and is timed against the for-profit health system’s annual shareholders meeting.

It’s backed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which represents 612 respiratory therapists, nursing assistants, medical technicians and others directly employed by Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. 

Joining the hospital employees will be housekeepers and food services workers from two other nearby Tenet facilities, Los Alamitos Medical Center and Lakewood Medical Center. The union said it represents about 225 such workers across the three locations and that they are subcontracted to international staffing firm Compass Group.

In total, NUHC expects 150 to 200 workers to be in attendance. They will be calling attention to Tenet’s strong financials and executive bonuses, which they say contrast with what the union described as “poverty wages” for the facilities’ workers.

Speakers will also discuss the housekeepers' and food service workers' contracts with Compass Group, which NUHC said pay "far less than Tenet and charges far more for health coverage.”

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Tenet posted a profit of $399 million for the full year of 2020. A couple of weeks back, it reported a $97 million profit for the first quarter of 2021, with Chief Financial Officer Daniel Cancelmi telling investors that “nearly all of our hospital markets exceeded our expectations.” The company also said that it is sitting on more than $2.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents.

“These profits are not helping workers or patients,” Christina Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, said in a statement provided by NUHW. “They’re being made at the expense of patient care and the people who have put their health on the line to help patients during this pandemic. At the height of the surge, I would go home crying that we didn’t have enough staff to help patients struggling to survive. We don’t need more executive bonuses, we need safely staffed hospitals.”

In its announcement, NUHW highlighted six-figure 2020 bonuses for Cancelmi ($250,000) and President and Chief Operating Officer Saum Sutaria ($500,000).

Other executive bonuses reported this year by the health system include $875,000 for Executive Chairman and CEO Ron Rittenmeyer and more than $940,000 for departing Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Sandi Karrmann (tied to the termination of a stock incentive plan).

RELATED: Tenet posts $97M in profit in Q1 as hospitals 'exceeded expectations'

In a statement provided to Fierce Healthcare, Tenet contended that the demonstrators’ arguments are directed at the Compass Group rather than the health system.

“This matter is not about us. It’s about a negotiation strictly between the NUHW and the Compass Group, which is a vendor that provides a range of food, laundry and other support services to hospitals,” the system said in its statement. “At all times, our main concern is the safety of our staff, the integrity of our facilities and the best possible outcomes for our patients, and we remain hopeful that the NUHW and Compass will reach a positive outcome at the conclusion of their respective negotiations.”

Aside from their pay, however, NUHW said the workers have also taken issue with Fountain Valley Regional Hospital’s safety practices. The demonstration announcement specifically highlighted a California Department of Public Health citation for infection control violations last year.

“The [governing body] failed to ensure an effective, active hospital-wide infection control program for the prevention, control and investigation of infections and communicable diseases, including COVID-19,” the department wrote in the citation delivered in September and signed by Fountain Valley Regional Hospital CEO Kenneth McFarland. “The cumulative effect of these systemic practices resulted in the failure of the hospital’s [governing body] to ensure the provision of quality healthcare in a safe manner."

"At Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and across Tenet, we committed our resources where they were needed most so we could meet all critical care needs, including implementing COVID-safe infrastructure, strong infection control policies and a robust vaccination program to keep our extended communities safe," Tenet told Fierce Healthcare in a statement replying to concerns regarding staff safety.

RELATED: 'My hospital is a hot mess.' Nurses plead for more PPE, safety measures amid COVID-19 surges

NUHW said it has asked Tenet to bring the workers subcontracted by Compass in house, but that it has so far been rebuked by the health system. NUHW said that the company has also rejected other requests regarding improved staffing in nursing units and increased respiratory therapy staffing in a neonatal unit. 

“Tenet’s profits during the pandemic came at the expense of its patients and workers,” NUHW President Sal Rosselli told Fierce Healthcare in a statement. “While Tenet focused on satisfying its stockholders, it denied workers access to appropriate [personal protective equipment], COVID testing and in too many instances, health coverage. It’s unconscionable that Tenet is touting its profits when the people who work at its hospitals can’t afford health care for their families or don’t have the staffing to properly care for patients.”

NUHW said it has been in negotiations with Compass Group since October and Tenet since January. The effort has received backing from a local clergy organization, government representatives (PDF) and others over the last few weeks.

It’s also one of several labor activities called by California healthcare workers and professionals over issues like workplace safety during the pandemic. For instance, a two-day strike of more than 150 nurses at Barton Memorial Hospital highlighted poor working conditions and insufficient compensation that led to high turnover, while a recent one-day protest at the University of California, Los Angeles' Santa Monica campus called for management to “immediately address the unsafe environment and working conditions that put patient safety at risk.”

Over on the other side of the country, Saint Vincent Hospital, a Massachusetts-based Tenet facility, has had its hands full with a nurses’ labor strike that’s soon to enter its second month. The parties reopened negotiations this past week.