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Nurses at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital have approved a new three-year labor contract, a scant nine days after they picked the facility to protest understaffing and inadequate COVID-19 protections.

The agreement, which runs through Dec. 31, 2024, with wage increases and guaranteed annual pay hikes, will keep nursing wages remain competitive, the hospital said. USC Verdugo’s 300 registered nurses are represented by the California Nurses Association.

Hospital CEO Armand Dorian said the contract will allow the facility to “deliver world-class care.”

“We are delighted to have come to an agreement with our registered nurses that are the heart and soul of our hospital,” Dorian said in a statement. “And we look forward to the limitless possibilities ahead.”

USC Verdugo Hills Hospital’s 300 registered nurses are represented by the California Nurses Association. (Photo courtesy of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital)

Highlights of the contract:

Increased safeguards: Isolation rooms for potentially infectious patients, guaranteed personal protective supplies and a new infectious disease task force.

Safer floating practices: The hospital acknowledges the use of “float” nurses, who fill in when staffing is low, are a temporary measure and not a substitute for adequate permanent staffing.

Higher wages: This will help the hospital retain and recruit nurses during a national staffing crisis. Specifics regarding pay hikes weren’t provided, but the union said nursing wages would increase by an average of 23.3% over the life of the three-year contract.

Esther Hathaway, an ICU nurse at USC Verdugo Hills, said she is pleased with the labor agreement.

“Some of the key wins we fought for will make our hospital a better place to work for nurses, which will make it a better place for patients, too,” Hathaway said.

Informational picket

USC Verdugo Hills nurses held an informational picket Feb. 23, saying the hospital’s failure to address chronic short-staffing was making it difficult to recruit and retain experienced nurses.

Speaking last month, emergency room nurse Ruby Carpo said nurses were leaving as fast as the hospital could hire them

“When I started here in 2018, we had 41 union nurses in ER,” Carpo said. “Now it’s down to 27 or 28. The last I heard, the hospital has a total of about 270 nurses.”

Suzanne Miller, a registered nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit, said the turnover rate had topped 40%.

In responding to those claims, the hospital stressed that health care systems nationwide are facing a shortage of nurses and other clinical staff.

“Our staffing levels are regularly audited by the California Department of Public Health, and these audits confirm that even during the height of the pandemic our staffing levels consistently met or exceeded requirements,” management said.

The hospital said it recently hired more nurses and is taking steps to ensure that patients receive the best possible care.

A common theme

Staffing has been an ongoing concern at hospitals throughout Southern California.

Nurses at Van Nuys Behavioral Health Hospital voted last month to authorize a strike, citing concerns over patient safety, understaffing and dwindling worker retention.

The issue of understaffing also arose when nurses, respiratory therapists and other workers at West Anaheim Medical Center picked the facility in November, claiming patient care and employee health were suffering because they were severely understaffed.

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