Rusty Simmons

April 26, 2020

Linda Cornell, unit secretary at one of Stanford Hospital’s nursing stations, has been dubbed the group’s “traffic controller” because of the expert way she monitors the phones, paperwork and patients’ needs simultaneously.

But even Cornell, who is near her 40th anniversary on the job, has never seen anything quite like this.

“People are shocked,” Cornell said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s like: ‘Why are they doing this?’ It doesn’t seem right.”

At perhaps the worst possible time, the Stanford hospital system is cutting pay and staff as the medical field around the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting fears and stresses of their employees.

In a letter sent to Stanford Health Care staffers last week and obtained by The Chronicle on Sunday, President and CEO David Entwistle said workers have the option of accepting a 20% pay cut or using paid time off between Monday and July 4. The 10-week period could be shortened or extended, Entwistle said.

Employees also can choose to take unpaid leave (a furlough) and apply for unemployment, or they can do a combination of paid time off, the pay cut and unemployment.

Spokeswoman Lia Kim said emergency room visits at Stanford Hospital are down about 40% since the region’s shelter-in-place order March 16. Hospitals have also shut down revenue-generating elective surgeries, and Stanford didn’t see the expected surge of patients during the pandemic — all of which is provoking the employees’ cuts.

The pay reductions will apply to all employees at Stanford Hospital, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford-ValleyCare, according to Palo Alto Weekly, which was first to report the story. Hospital leadership and a health care workers union said the cuts will be “across the board” among the roughly 14,000 employees.

All isn’t fair in the “shared sacrifice,” said Steve Trossman, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West. The SEIU-UHW has nearly 97,000 members, including about 2,000 affected by the Stanford cuts.

Trossman said Stanford’s housekeeping assistants, who sterilize the hospitals, are paid less than $60,000; lab assistants, who draw blood and run tests on the coronavirus, make about $60,000; and nursing assistants don’t surpass $65,000 until well after six years on the job.

Losing 20% of their pay could mean the difference in paying rent, buying groceries, maintaining transportation and more.

“These health care workers at Stanford, and everywhere else, are heroically going into work every day in circumstances where they’re literally putting their health on the line,” Trossman said. “Stanford’s reward to them for this is to cut their pay by 20%. It’s really outrageous.

“We’ve heard the term ‘health care heroes’ thrown around a lot, and it’s true. But their reward is to cut their pay and put a much bigger burden on their families.”

So far, Stanford’s leadership has said there will be no bargaining, but the union still hopes to barter about the cuts. The union said it is looking at different options if it isn’t given a voice at the table.

The Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement, an independent union for Stanford nurses, has contract language dating to the early 1990s with its own process for reductions. Instead of accepting across-the-board cuts, Crona Vice President Kathy Stormberg said hours have been trimmed drastically for surgery nurses and those working for in-patient or off-campus facilities. Others, like those in neonatal intensive care, have not been affected.

“We need to take care of our patients, and we’re not just going to randomly cut people in areas where there are significant needs,” Stormberg said.

An open letter signed by 18 Stanford Health Care staffers and sent to leadership reads, in part: “We are dismayed that Stanford Health Care is now turning its back on frontline health care workers and refusing to acknowledge our input when it comes to furloughs. Your refusal to work collaboratively and negotiate is extremely disrespectful to all of us who have been coming to work every day, often without proper protection, putting our lives at risk to care for patients.”

No data are available on how many workers will prefer to take time off. Staff reductions would seemingly diminish care, but Stanford Health Care disputed that notion.

“This measure will not impact any of our operations,” the hospital administration said in a statement. “We continue to provide the safest, highest quality care for our patients and remain dedicated to pioneering research and effective clinical therapies to address this evolving situation.”

Cornell doesn’t see how that is possible.

“This is when they need staff, not to cut back on staff,” she said. “When you have less staff, things don’t get done as quickly as they should. There are delays in lab results, delays in getting patients where they need to be, delays in getting tests done. Then too, if you have staff rushing to make up time, people can rush and open things up to possible staff or patient injuries or labs being incorrect — all sorts of problems.”

Cornell is on a planned staycation through May 3, joking that she’s mostly traveling to her kitchen and living room during the time away from the hospital.

She remarkably keeps that sense of humor during a time when her colleagues are consistently contacting her about non-laughing matters.

“Many families are living paycheck to paycheck,” Cornell said. “Some have already used up their PTO (paid time off) and are into sick leave, because schools are out and they need child care.

“This is really putting many families in dire straits.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Lauren Hernández and Tatiana Sanchez contributed to this report.