LOS ANGELES — Thousands of workers at University of California medical centers began a two-day strike on Tuesday that prompted the postponement of dozens of surgeries amid reassurances that patients were safe.
A union representing some 13,000 hospital pharmacists, nursing assistants, operating room scrubs and other health care workers began the walkout at 4 a.m. at medical facilities in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Nurses were not on strike, emergency rooms were open, and about 450 union employees remained in critical jobs under court order.
The hospitals had prepared for the strike by postponing non-essential surgeries, hiring hundreds of temporary workers and having supervisors do some jobs.
No major problems were reported in the initial hours of the strike as green-shirted picketers gathered in front of hospitals.
“We are prepared to take care of everybody in a safe fashion,” said Dr. Tom Rosenthal, chief medical officer of UCLA Hospital Systems.
About 30 surgeries were being postponed through the strike period at Los Angeles-area facilities, Rosenthal said.
In Sacramento, more than 45 operations were postponed in the UC Davis health system, while five children’s surgeries were postponed at UC San Francisco facilities, according to a UC statement.
More than 200 procedures were rescheduled at San Diego and Orange County medical facilities, officials told City News Service.
The union is battling the university system over staffing and pension issues.
“We care about our patients and we feel that we’re chronically understaffed and we need additional help,” Ruben Gomez, a radiation therapist in Los Angeles, told KCBS-TV.
There was no clear count of how many union workers had joined the walkout, which was set to last until early Thursday.
“We are well into the thousands” of employees, said Todd Stenhouse, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
However, Rosenthal said a preliminary estimate indicated that more than half of union employees had reported for work at UC facilities in the Los Angeles area.
Stenhouse said the labor dispute involved chronic and dangerously low staffing levels. The union is concerned that the UC system is using trainees and volunteers in some positions in a bid to save money, he said.
“If you’re going to a hospital, do you want to be subjected to a learning curve when your life is at stake?” he asked. “We really undermine our ability to provide quality care.”
Overworked employees are skipping lunches and breaks to do their jobs, he contended. One operating room technician has been working 22-hour shifts at his hospital or on call, he added.
UC officials say the real issue is a refusal by the union to accept a new pension plan — similar to those of other state workers — that requires more employee contributions and reduces long-term benefits for new hires.
The hospital system could face billions of dollars in new pension costs unless there is reform, Rosenthal said.