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 surgeries, diagnostic procedures, treatments and emergency care throughout the state.
The union representing nearly 13,000 vocational nurses, respiratory therapists and radiology technologists said they staged the strike - scheduled to last two days - to draw attention to staffing shortages that they say undermine patient care at the hospitals in San Francisco, Davis, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine.
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.
"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."
Todd Stenhouse, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the striking workers, said the union's primary consideration was ensuring adequate staff for patient care.
"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 workers have been working without a contract since September.
Klein said the sticking point in negotiations has been the union's unwillingness to agree to changes to a pension system that most of the university's other workers have already accepted. "What AFSCME wants is a special deal for them, and we don't think it's fair," she said.
Proposed changes 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 shortchanging patient care on a daily basis need to stop," said Thrush, 46.
University of California Vice President for Human Resources Dwaine Duckett said his organization had offered the workers a four-year contract with up to 3.5 percent annual wage increases. The average employee in the union earns $55,000 a year, he said.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and John Wallace)