More than 900 registered nurses walked off the job Sunday at two Kaiser Permanente facilities, including the company's flagship hospital on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where officials said they were forced to slash their patient load by two-thirds.
Responding to the strike, officials at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital--the major referral hospital for serious illness and injury in Kaiser's Southern California network--postponed all elective surgeries. They also shut down their cardiac surgery and neonatal intensive care units, making arrangements for patients requiring such specialized services to be treated at medical centers outside the Kaiser network.
Sunday's walkout, which began just after midnight, marked the second time in six weeks that Kaiser employees in Southern California have struck the nation's largest health maintenance organization.
But unlike last month's sweeping strike by 11,200 technicians, maintenance workers and licensed vocational nurses in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, Sunday's walkout affects only the 632-bed Kaiser Foundation Hospital and the 40-bed Skilled Nursing Care Facility in Inglewood.
Neither side expects a quick resolution to the strike. Kaiser officials Sunday predicted that the walkout could last a month.
David Bullock, southern regional director of Local 535 of the American Federation of Nurses, which represents the 925 striking employees, said, "We will be out here for as long as it takes to get them to change their offer."
Union officials added that a severe nursing shortage should make it easier for Kaiser nurses to stay off the job. During the strike, the union is permitting its members to work at other area hospitals on a fill-in basis.
Both monetary and professional issues are at stake in the labor dispute. The nurses say the wage hikes Kaiser has offered would be severely offset by overtime cutbacks. They also complain that the company is trying to create a two-tiered system in which nurses with less experience receive lower wage hikes than more experienced employees.
In addition, the nurses contend that Kaiser has refused to seriously address the problem of nurses handling non-nursing duties, such as housekeeping, clerical work and serving meals to patients.
Union members voted overwhelmingly last week to reject Kaiser's final offer--a three-year contract that called for salary increases of between 7% and 12.5% during the first year and hikes in each of the next two years of either 4% or 4% above the average wages at area hospitals, whichever is greater. The package also called for a joint union-management committee to study the issue of non-nursing duties.
Al Bolden, Kaiser's vice president of human resources, said the package is "designed to keep us in the forefront of the industry and to allow us to attract qualified health care professionals."
But union officials branded the committee plan a stalling tactic. Bullock said the proposed overtime cutbacks would be so severe that, by union calculations, some nurses would suffer a 1% reduction in salary, even with the raises.
"We have to look at the bottom line--how much money our members take home," he said.
While striking nurses were picketing both the hospital and the Inglewood clinic, Kaiser officials were relying on management nurses--including some from facilities in Northern California and Oregon--to care for those patients who had not been sent elsewhere in anticipation of the strike.
"It's disruptive to our patients, who need to be diverted," said Joseph Hummel, administrator of the Sunset Boulevard hospital, where the normal patient load of 425 had been reduced to 120 by Sunday. But, he said, "we have not compromised the quality of care at all."