SAN FRANCISCO - Hospital officials are hoping for no catastrophes as 4,000 workers stage a one-day strike Thursday, leaving 10 hospitals with skeletal crews.
''We realize there's a potential public health crisis, and we're not really knowing what to expect,'' said Bill Gleeson, a spokesman for Sutter Health, which operates five of the affected hospitals.
The walkout comes at a tough time for San Francisco Bay-area hospitals: 1,730 nurses at two Stanford hospitals are in their fourth week of a strike, and five anesthesiologists at an Oakland hospital resigned last week in a dispute over pay and other issues.
Thursday's strike at three Catholic Healthcare West hospitals, two independent facilities, and at the five Sutter Health hospitals includes receptionists, food service workers, nursing assistants and respiratory therapists. Most hospitals have responded by cutting back outpatient services or postponing elective surgeries.
A number of nurses will strike in sympathy, the union said.
Hospital officials said the strike showed a ''reckless and tragic'' disregard for patient care, but the hospital workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 250, said it was no more reckless than the poor patient care that has resulted from years of mergers, staff cutbacks and profit-seeking by the hospitals.
''We're taking a stand for quality patient care in our community,'' said Beverly Griffith, a linen distributor at Summit Medical Center in Oakland.
One health care analyst says unions are ignoring the bind that hospitals are in: Declining Medicaid and insurance payments have forced hospitals to reduce staff and wages to break even.
''Unions have the mindset that says, 'I'm measuring my income against what the CEO makes.' That's ridiculous,'' said Wanda Jones, an industry analyst with New Century Health Care Institute in San Francisco.
''If you took his salary down by 50 percent and spread it around, it would buy them a cup of coffee,'' Jones said.
Unlike most strikes, this one is not the result of contract talks breaking down.
Negotiations over various contract issues continue at each hospital. Federal mediators met last week with Sutter Health officials, and on Monday with representatives of Catholic Healthcare West.
The union said the one-day strike was not purposefully timed to coincide with other Bay-area hospital strikes.
Sutter Health and Catholic Healthcare West officials said the unions were unfairly demanding lifetime job security, but the union said its chief aim is to give its employees a voice in staffing decisions.
Contract negotiations by nurses from Stanford Medical Center and from Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital were scheduled to resume Thursday morning.
The five anesthesiologists who resigned from Oakland's Highland Hospital have found other jobs.