A judge on Monday ordered a halt to a series of sickouts by union nurses at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where specially trained burn unit nurses failed to show up for work on the Fourth of July.
County health officials successfully petitioned Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs for the temporary restraining order on a day when courts and county offices were generally closed. County lawyers argued the sickouts were threatening the health and safety of hospital patients.
The order was issued against Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, though officials said they had nothing to do with the sickouts.
Annelle Grajeda, general manager of Local 660, said the union did not oppose the restraining order and would comply. The order requires the union to notify its 5,000 nursing members to stop the sickouts.
Nurses represented by the union have been working without a contract since Sept. 30, Grajeda said.
Negotiations have snagged on wage demands and other issues, especially staffing levels at county hospitals, which the union believes are too low.
“You know, it’s a pretty heavy step when nurses do something like this,” Grajeda said of the sickouts, “and frankly I think it’s really a message to the county and the union that we need to be at the table and we need to have a contract.”
According to officials with the county Department of Health Services, the sickouts at County-USC began Friday morning, when 18 of 23 nurses scheduled to work in the emergency room called in sick.
The sickout continued during the evening shift in the emergency room. On Saturday, nine of 12 nurses scheduled to work in a surgical intensive care unit called in sick.
The emergency room sickout Friday forced hospital officials to divert some patients to other hospitals, according to health department spokesman John Wallace.
County-USC’s emergency room registered about 300 patients Friday, or about 150 fewer than usual, according to the hospital’s medical director, Dr. David F. Altman.
County officials were particularly angered by the Fourth of July sickout, which involved all three nurses scheduled to work in the burn unit. County-USC runs one of three burn units in the county.
As it turned out, according to county Supervisor Gloria Molina, the burn unit was staffed by a nursing supervisor with training in burn treatment, and no patients were brought in with life-threatening injuries.
Still, Molina said, “it was terrifying to think that potentially somebody could have died because we did not have as fully equipped a burn unit as usual, especially on the Fourth of July.”