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Laguna Beach Hospital Slashes Nurses' Wages

September 15, 1993|ANNE MICHAUD and LESLIE BERKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAGUNA BEACH — Claiming financial distress, South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach said it will cut the wages of most of its nursing staff by 16%.

The hospital is the fourth in Orange County to take such action. Children's Hospital of Orange County in Orange and Children's Hospital at Mission in Mission Viejo cut nurses' wages by 10% in August. And Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills late last year reduced wages by 14% for more than 300 employees, about two-thirds of them nurses.

The cuts follow an unexpected drop in number of patients, shorter hospitals stays and reduced insurance reimbursement for hospital costs. Nearly 60% of Southern California's hospitals went into the red last year.

Also, a nursing shortage that drove up wages during the late 1980s is over, prompting hospitals nationwide to seek givebacks. Some facilities are laying off nurses or severely reducing their hours and cutting out benefits.

"It's just outrageous," said Maureen Anderson, a spokeswoman for the California Nurses Assn. labor union at its San Francisco headquarters.

"Hospitals are cutting the highest-paid, most versatile workers in registered nurses," she said. "They're going to have a hard time keeping people after this."

The nurses at South Coast Medical Center, not surprisingly, are also unhappy about the wage reduction, which is to take effect Sept. 23. They are calling for across-the-board pay cuts for hospital administrators of 3% to 5%.

"At the height of the health-care crisis, hospital administrators are driving nurses and other highly trained personnel out of their profession," said one of the hospital's registered nurses, who asked not to be identified.

Ellen Turnbull, a spokeswoman for South Coast Medical Center, said that hospital employees have to look at the bigger picture.

The facility posted a profit of $105,000 for its fiscal year that ended in June, she said, but has lost more than $600,000 since then.

"These changes are necessary," Turnbull said. "They're what we're trying to do to remain a viable institution while providing the best care possible. We're in hard economic times in Southern California, and we need to work together."

South Coast Medical Center said that, besides cutting the pay of 50 nurses, it will lay off 11 of its managers and support staff.

The nurses' pay cuts affect only those who work 12-hour shifts. Higher wages for those working 12-hour shifts were among recruiting tools that hospitals used during the nurse shortage.

Catherine Dodd, director of government relations for the California Nurses Assn., said that in recent months hospitals across the nation have been laying off nurses and hiring unlicensed assistants who provide patient care under the supervision of remaining nurses.

At the same time, as health insurers seek to hold down costs, patients who are admitted to hospitals typically are more seriously ill than in the past and require more nursing attention, she said.

"Essentially the industry is trying to provide care in acute-care settings with unlicensed and poorly trained personnel," she said. "They are taking the nurse out of nursing care and endangering health and safety."

Times staff writer David R. Olmos contributed to this report.

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