LYNWOOD – A Saturday rally in solidarity with nine nurses fired by St. Francis Medical Center drew about 200 people to the Lynwood Natatorium swimming pool, including city, state, and labor union leaders demanding their full reinstatement.

The nurses, known as the Prime 9, allege they were unlawfully terminated in December by corporate owner Prime Healthcare, following a visit they made to the company’s headquarters in Ontario, California to deliver documents notifying them of alleged safety violations at the hospital. 

Scott Byington, a mobile critical care nurse, said he was terminated the week of Christmas after he and his co-workers were let in the corporate offices by personnel and handed Prime the letters because they hit an impasse with management at St. Francis on requests to improve medical care. 

“The whole purpose of the termination was to silence us. It had nothing to do with us. They thought they had a reason to terminate us,” Byington said. “We are trying to protect the patients and the community and make the conditions much better. Prime Healthcare does not believe in that. That’s not what they stand for. They don’t stand for safe patience care. They stand for making money.”  

Prime Healthcare alleged the nine workers trespassed those premises on Nov. 30, in violation of its Standards of Conduct policy, when they turned in letters from community members and public officials in support of their petition.

People show their support for a group of nine nurses laid off by St. Francis Medical Center on December. Alfredo Santana / LA Public Press

Of the nine workers fired, St. Francis terminated five members of the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West bargaining unit that negotiated a new labor contract for 600 nurses at the hospital, in addition to four specialized registered nurses.

“It is a call for the reinstatement of the Prime 9 who were fired by protesting at the Prime Healthcare” headquarters, said Jeff Rogers, communications specialist with the United Nurses Associations of California and Union of Health Care Professionals, in reference to the rally held at Lynwood’s Natatorium. 

The St. Francis SEIU bargaining unit members laid off are: Lorenza Bernal, Dolores Aguilar, Mayra Castañeda, Queenie Reyna and Sonia Rodriguez. 

The registered nurses fired by Prime are Byington, Maricela Garay-Barajas, James Blankenship, and Arlene Nielsen.

Byington, who was hired in 1995, is the President of the St. Francis Registered Nurses Association, and Castañeda is a registered nurse with 25 years of experience at the hospital. 

In a civil suit filed last month against Prime Healthcare by attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of the dismissed nurses, the plaintiffs allege the company fired them in retaliation to their activism that led to a five-day strike in October, and for searing criticism about staff shortages after the for-profit corporation acquired St. Francis in 2020. 

The complaint seeks lost wages, damages for psychological, emotional and physical injuries, punitive damages and attorney fees.  

A statement from St. Francis Medical Center said the termination of the nine former employees had nothing to do with their union membership.

The layoffs were “a result of violations of hospital policy, which were reported and fully investigated, including abusive misconduct and trespassing,” the hospital said in the statement. “St. Francis will defend against these meritless claims and ensure a safe and compassionate environment for all.”

Sandi Marques, a registered nurse at St. Francis and Service Employees International Union nurses negotiator, said the union filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board and with the company’s human resources department for unfair termination practices, retaliation for engaging in protected activities and disclosing facts on continued “chronic and unsafe staffing issues.”

Marques said the grievances seek to fully reinstate the affected nurses, and correct alleged hospital flaws in nurse-to-patient ratios spelled in Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations. 

The state code calls for 1 to 4 ratios in pediatric clinics, 1 to 2 in anesthetic and post-anesthetic units and 1 to 2 at critical care units. 

Nurses have complained the hospital frequently flouts the ratios since Prime laid off experienced nurses following its acquisition nearly four years ago.

“We are still fighting to have safe staffing and have a voice for our patients,” said Marques. “Our ultimate concern is safe staffing.”

In August, hospital nurses and staff picketed the facility to demand a better labor contract, in protest for Prime’s staff cuts at several medical rooms, and to reinstate training programs for nurses fresh off college, said union representatives. 

Lynwood Mayor Jose Luis Solache said at the Saturday rally he supports the full reinstatement of the nine nurses, in addition to better wages and improved labor conditions at St. Francis. 

“We have to make sure that all nine, not eight, all nine come back to work,” said Solache, who climbed on the back of a truck furnished by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Just like you and I, their families depend on them working as well, bringing their livelihoods to their households, and making sure that their families are stronger like everyone’s.”

Solache was joined by Los Angeles District 13 Council member Hugo Soto-Martinez, California State Senator Lena Gonzalez, who represents the 33rd District, which encompasses Lynwood, Yvonne Wheeler, President of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, and Lorena Gonzalez, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation. 

For his part, emergency room nurse James Blankenship said in a press release he was born in St. Francis, lived in the community his whole life, and served the area by working at the hospital. 

Blankenship was fired on Dec. 20. 

“Before Prime came, we would actually block rooms if we didn’t have the nurses. Prime does not block the rooms. They need those beds filled, which basically equals profits over patient safety,” Blankenship said. “You may have gotten rid of us but we’re not gone and we’re not forgotten and the power will continue.”