WESTWOOD (CBSLA.com) — As a two-day strike began Tuesday at five of the biggest medical centers in the University of California system, medical workers say they are protesting low staffing levels and patient care, while officials contend that the strike is about pensions.

Thousands of union medical workers walked picket lines throughout the state, including at UC Irvine and the Westwood and Santa Monica campuses of UCLA Medical Center. The strike officially began at 4a.m. Tuesday morning.

The strike comes after nearly a year of stalled contract negotiations with UC administrators. Striking workers said they are protesting a range of issues, including patient care and current staffing levels.

“I am here for my patients, I’m really concerned about their safety,” said radiation therapist Jenny Takakura, who administers radiation to cancer patients.

“We’ve had three therapists that have left, and each time they’ve left they have not been replaced,” she said.

UCLA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Rosenthal said there are no issues with patient care.

“UCLA scores in the 99th percentile nationally for hospitals for patient satisfaction,” said Rosenthal.

Ninety-seven percent of union workers voted to strike, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, the union representing healthcare workers. The union represents nearly 13,000 healthcare workers statewide.

“If we are out here today, it means that there is a problem inside that hospital that has got to get fixed,” said AFSCME President Kathryn Lybarger, who says the strike is not about money.

“We won’t stand for the corner cutting anymore.”

“When somebody says its not about money, it’s about money,” said Rosenthal, who said union workers refuse to contribute an extra one percent to their pensions, which they say are underfunded.

“This is about pensions. There are no staffing issues even on the negotiating table,” said Rosenthal.

UCLA says patient care has not been interrupted by the strike, but that the hospital has taken precautionary measures including canceling all non-emergency surgeries and hiring 550 replacement workers in anticipation of the walkout.

Emergency Rooms at all locations remain open and fully staffed.

UC officials estimate the strike is costing a total of $25 million at all locations, with an estimated $5 million needed for UCLA alone.

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