Caregivers at Fountain Valley Regional authorize strike as Tenet reports revenue growth

Christina Rodriguez at a rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center in May
Christina Rodriguez at a May 6 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center. NUHW employees voted Wednesday to authorize a strike ahead of upcoming contract talks.
(File Photo)

Unionized workers with Tenet Healthcare — including hundreds of respiratory therapists, nursing assistants, technicians and emergency and operating room staff at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center — have authorized a strike that could begin as early as next month.

Voting results were released Wednesday by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the same day Tenet Healthcare Corp. announced to shareholders the company had earned a second-quarter net income of $257 million, including $24 million in COVID-19 stimulus grants.

More than 600 employees from the Fountain Valley facility have joined some 225 NUHW-represented employees of Compass Group USA, who provide housekeeping and dietary services at the hospital and facilities in Los Alamitos and Lakewood, at protests and rallies in the past year demanding better wages, employee healthcare and staffing.

“Tenet has grown richer during the pandemic, while our hospitals here in Southern California remain dangerously understaffed and many of us can’t afford health insurance,” Fountain Valley Regional housekeeper Amy Cornelius said in a release issued Wednesday by union leaders.

Ultrasound technician Sony Pham at a May 6 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center.
Ultrasound technician Sony Pham at a May 6 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center, where several employees say they worked in COVID-19 wards but cannot afford their own medical insurance.
(File Photo)

“We have been sounding the alarm throughout the pandemic that Tenet needs to take better care of its patients and workers,” she continued. “[But] Tenet has failed to act — they have left us no choice but to strike.”

No dates for a possible strike have been set. Negotiations between the Dallas-based healthcare provider and NUHW employees, which have been ongoing since employees’ contract expired in May, are set to resume Aug. 2.

Tenet spokeswoman Jennifer Bayer dismissed union leaders’ claims.

“This is merely a negotiating tactic by the labor union,” she said by email. “We continue to bargain in good faith with them in hopes of reaching a successful resolution for Fountain Valley Regional Hospital.”

Tenet’s income remained robust throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to grants from the federal CARES Act’s Provider Relief Fund, which gave $178 billion to healthcare providers under the Trump administration.

Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, at the height of the pandemic in January , built makeshift tents for COVID-19 patients.
Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center, at the height of the pandemic in January 2021, built makeshift tents to handle overflow COVID-19 patients.
(File Photo)

Its second-quarter earnings report indicates by July 1, 2020, the provider had earned $511 million in grant funding, while Reuters reported last June the corporation disclosed receiving more than $2 billion in pandemic-related grants.

In a May 21 letter to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Javier Becerra and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter, Reps. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called on the Biden administration to investigate whether Tenet and other major hospital companies misused COVID-19 relief funds and conduct a public hearing by Aug. 30.

The legislators claimed funds intended to bolster hospitals and healthcare providers caring for individuals with COVID-19 parents or losing revenue from patients’ delaying non-urgent care went disproportionately to large hospital systems and for-profit companies with healthy cash reserves.

“Some healthcare systems prioritized boosting their own bottom line and expansion over patients and healthcare workers,” they wrote. “Because taxpayer funds were misused to profit off the pandemic, the sick lost their lives and healthcare workers were traumatized.”

The letter states Tenet Healthcare in December 2020 spent $1.1 billion acquiring 45 surgery centers from Maryland-based SurgCenter Development and plans to spend another $150 million in 2021 to acquire 25 to 40 more ambulatory surgery centers.

Bayer said, given the unprecedented strain placed on healthcare systems by the pandemic, the CARES Act funding received by Tenet was vital in offsetting financial challenges.

“This government support was used solely for the purpose of providing COVID relief to our providers in accordance with the terms and conditions of the support funding,” she said. “Any claim to the contrary is not based in fact and is not credible.”

Barbara Lewis, NUHW’s Southern California hospital division director, decried the fact that Tenet has maintained strong profit margins while healthcare workers struggle and are often forced to go without health insurance of their own.

“These profits were made on the backs of housekeeping and dietary staff who earn $15 an hour. If any company can afford to improve conditions, it is Tenet Healthcare,” Lewis said by email. “We hope we can reach agreement in the upcoming negotiations. But if not, we are ready to keep fighting.”

Only 11 among more than 800 NUHW employees voted not to strike, Lewis confirmed.

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