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Watsonville Community Hospital nurses took to the streets Friday to hold an informational picket over short-staffed working conditions. Nurses say Los Angeles-based managing firm Prospect Medical Holdings can do better to fix matters; the hospital says it is doing what it can to increase hiring.

More than 60 nurses represented by the California Nurses Association held an informational picket outside of Watsonville Community Hospital on Friday, citing concerns over what they call dangerous short staffing and deteriorating patient care and working conditions.

The land the hospital sits on and the buildings themselves are owned by Alabama-based Medical Properties Trust and has been managed by Los Angeles-based firm Prospect Medical Holdings since January. Nurses say the decision to hire Prospect Medical has led to the deterioration of staffing and to threats of closures of critical care units.

Roseann Farris, a Watsonville Community Hospital nurse of 25 years and a union representative, says that night shifts at the critical care unit, typically staffed with eight nurses, have had only one over the past month. In order to compensate for the understaffing in the unit, nurses from other departments are moved around, causing shortages throughout the hospital.

She says this is only one example of what it’s been like to work at the understaffed facility in recent months.

“It just causes further burnout,” Farris said. “When you’re coming in day after day, you’re not taking breaks, you’re staying over, you’re coming in early, you’re working extra, but not really taking care of yourself. In the course of the day, and over time, it’s not good for you.”

Nurses express themselves on Friday outside Watsonville Community Hospital.
Nurses express themselves on Friday outside Watsonville Community Hospital. Credit: Haneen Zain / Lookout Santa Cruz

This isn’t the first time Watsonville nurses have taken to the street this year. Following the appointment of Prospect Medical as the hospital’s managing firm in January, nurses voiced concerns over staffing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watsonville Community Hospital says it’s been making efforts to increase its staffing, offering sign-on bonuses to new employees and cash bonuses to part-time employees who switch to full time. It is also giving cash bonuses to current hospital employees who refer new nurses.

“It is important to note that our hospital has never been out of compliance with the staffing ratios mandated by the California Department of Public Health,” hospital management said via statement. “This is despite the nationwide shortage of nurses that is affecting virtually every hospital across the country.”

California nurse-to-patient ratio laws mandate that there is one nurse for every two patients in the intensive care or critical care unit of a hospital. Farris says the critical care unit typically has four patients but has fluctuated amid the pandemic, with up to 10 patients at the height of COVID. Nurses say they have repeatedly told management that their shifts are out of ratio.

Louise Pearse, in her 15th year as a nurse, said she has worked multiple understaffed shifts in the critical care unit and has reported out-of-ratio shifts to her supervisor.

“We’re telling our supervisor, ‘Hey, I’m out of ratio this shift, how can we make this safer?’” Pearse said. “And then they’ll say something along the lines of, ‘You know, we don’t have anybody else to call.’”

She says it’s become common for nurses to dread reporting for work.

“A lot of us are struggling to come in every day and know that we’re not going to get a lunch break, or dinner break, or bathroom break,” Pearse said. “People are crying on their way into work, because they know how bad it’s going to be when they get there.”

According to Farris and Pearse, understaffing in the critical care unit has led Prospect Medical to consider shutting that part of the operation down for indefinite periods of time, a decision Farris said could be detrimental to patients. If the unit were to close down, patients needing high-level care would be transferred to other hospitals such as Stanford and Dominican.

Gloria Amaya, a registered nurse at the hospital since 1982, says conditions weren’t always like this.

“I’ve been a nurse long enough to know what it looks like to be adequately staffed, and what it looks like to have all the resources that you need at hand,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot of different owners over the years, and it seems that every time we get a new owner or a management company, it’s worse off than when we started.”

Amaya works in the prenatal unit of the hospital, where she said she sees nurses work over their capacity every day. She says it’s become common practice for nurses to work double shifts, exceeding 12 hours.

The union represents about 270 nurses from Watsonville Community Hospital, which holds 106 beds. Farris said she hopes Friday’s picket will bring the understaffed conditions at the hospital to light.

“I think the goal is to make sure that the community is aware that again we have an outside, for-profit company managing us, and an outside, for-profit company owning us,” Farris said. “We have to make sure that we, as a community, hold them accountable for safely staffing our hospital.”

UPDATE: This story was updated on Oct. 27 to clarify the fact that MPT owns the land the hospital sits on and its buildings, but does not manage its operations.

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Follow Haneen Zain on: Twitter. Haneen moved to Santa Cruz from Orange County in 2017 to begin her undergraduate education at UC Santa Cruz. After graduating in 2021 with a B.A. in politics, she decided...