After a pandemic strike, nurses union must pay Riverside hospital millions in damages

RIVERSIDE, CA -- MAY 15: Co-workers, family and friends hold a candlelight vigil for Rosa Luna, 68, at Riverside Community Hospital, on Friday, May 15, 2020, in Riverside, CA. Luna, an Environmental Services Housekeeper for 25 years at Riverside Community Hospital, died May 4, 2020 from COVID-19. She is survived by her daughter Dora Reaza and two grandchildren. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
The union representing nurses at Riverside Community Hospital has been ordered to pay more than $6 million to the hospital for damages caused by a 2020 strike. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The union representing nurses at Riverside Community Hospital has been ordered to pay more than $6 million to the hospital for the fallout from a 2020 strike.

The unusual financial penalty was imposed by an arbitrator who found the 10-day work stoppage during the pandemic violated the terms of the labor agreement signed by HCA Healthcare, which operates the hospital, and Service Employees International Union Local 121RN. The $6.26-million fine, the arbitrator determined, was necessary to compensate the hospital for the cost of replacing workers who walked off the job during the strike, according to a statement released Wednesday.

Nurses walked off the job in June 2020 in an effort to force the hospital to increase staffing and improve safety as COVID-19 infections surged, the union said at the time. But hospital officials argued that because nurses also voiced complaints about shortages of personal protective equipment, the reasons for the strike were too expansive to be allowed under the collective bargaining agreement the two sides had signed.

“Our contract was clear, and the union showed reckless disregard for its members and the Riverside community by calling the strike,” said Jackie Van Blaricum, president of HCA Healthcare’s Far West Division, who was the hospital’s chief executive during the strike. “We applaud the arbitrator’s decision.”

SEIU 121RN Executive Director Rosanna Mendez objected to the arbitrator's findings, saying nurses were permitted under their contract to go on strike. She called the arbitrator's decision "absurd and outrageous."

"It is absolutely shocking that an arbitrator would expect nurses to not talk about safety issues," Mendez said, adding that the union was exploring its options to contest the arbitrator's decision.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.