By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Thousands of healthcare workers walked off the job at the University of California's five medical centers on Tuesday, delaying emergency care, surgeries, diagnostic procedures and other medical treatment throughout the state.
The union representing nearly 13,000 vocational nurses, respiratory therapists and radiology technicians said it called the two-day strike to draw attention to staff shortages they said undermine patient care at the hospitals in San Francisco, Davis, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine.
University officials said the main stumbling block in contract talks with striking workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is the union's unwillingness to agree to retirement benefit changes that most other university workers have accepted.
In addition to the healthcare workers on strike, some of the public hospital system's estimated 3,400 pharmacists, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and lab scientists also walked out on Tuesday in a one-day sympathy strike at the five medical centers.
Hospital officials estimated several thousand employees participated in Tuesday's job actions.
The hospital brought in 105 replacement workers but was forced to postpone 150 scheduled surgeries and delay treatment to about 100 patients who had been expecting to undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants, said Sheila Antrum, UC San Francisco's chief nursing officer.
The emergency room remained open but some ambulance-borne patients were diverted to other hospitals farther away, delaying their care.
"The allegation is they're doing this for patient safety," UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said. "If we had unsafe staffing levels, we wouldn't be in operation. I really don't understand how walking off the job and leaving patients stranded is helping them."
"What AFSCME wants is a special deal for them, and we don't think it's fair," she added.
The university had offered the workers a four-year contract with up to 3.5 percent annual wage increases, said University of California Vice President for Human Resources Dwaine Duckett. The average employee in the union earns $55,000 a year, he said.
The union wants contract provisions giving its members a say in staffing they see as inadequate, in part because of recent layoffs and the outsourcing of healthcare jobs to nonunion workers, said AFSCME spokesman Todd Stenhouse.
"Our top concern is about safe staffing, and we need to put a stop to the diversion of resources away from patient care," he said. He said the striking employees have been working without a contract since September.
A spokeswoman for the San Francisco medical center acknowledged that the hospital had eliminated 300 positions since November, including the jobs of 75 employees who were laid off.
Contract benefit changes proposed by the UC system include raising employee pension contributions, revising eligibility rules for retiree health benefits and creating a second tier of retirement benefits for new workers.
Tim Thrush picketed outside UC San Francisco, where he works as a diagnostic sonographer, holding a sign saying, "Striking for our patients, our family and our future."
"I'm very excited and energized to be in the middle of hundreds of my co-workers who are standing up to UC and letting them know that their messed-up priorities that are short-changing patient care on a daily basis need to stop," said Thrush, 46.
Randy Johnson, 55, an MRI technician who has worked at UCSF for 20 years, said he was striking because of staffing reductions.
"They keep cutting our staff," Johnson said. "I work with sick, dying kids every day. I just don't have the time to spend with the parents of these kids that they deserve."
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)