THOUSAND OAKS — The union representing about 400 nurses at Columbia Los Robles Hospital said it intends to file a state labor complaint accusing the facility of being so badly understaffed that nurses are being forced to work through lunch without pay.
Nurses, who fought with the hospital for more than two years to win representation from the Service Employees International Union, contend that superiors of some of the nurses frequently clock them out for lunch, even though they are not given time to eat.
Kris Carraway, spokeswoman for the 1,200-employee hospital that is owned by Nashville-based health-care giant Columbia/HCA, said administrators had not been informed by the union of any plans to file charges.
"We haven't heard a word about this," Carraway said. "We take every complaint seriously, but this is a surprise."
The union's Local 535, which has been working for more than a year to secure its first labor contract for the nurses, is planning an informational picket outside the Janss Road hospital on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.
"What they are doing is illegal," nurse Lesley Whitehouse said in a written statement. "If we are working through our lunch break, we should be getting paid for it. And nurses should have a chance to take lunch. Everybody needs time to breathe when they're working under such stressful circumstances."
Carraway said union representatives have never brought up the issue before, and stressed that all employees have specific times to take a lunch or dinner break depending on their hours.
"We've been at the bargaining table, and this has never come up," Carraway said. "We have no idea. But I can tell you that I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to conduct union negotiations through the press."
Moreover, Carraway said, Los Robles is far from understaffed.
The number of nurses working in certain portions of the hospital, such as the cardiac and intensive-care units, is set by the state, and staffing throughout the medical complex meets "patient acuity" guidelines, according to Joanna Biere, director of nursing.
"Depending on how sick the patient is, there is supposed to be a certain number of staffing, and we adhere to that," Biere said.
Union organizer Tanya Boone said she was not sure if the subject of lunch breaks had ever been raised in the ongoing negotiations, but she said she had received complaints from a handful of nurses about the situation.
"They might or might not have the state bottom line," Boone said. "But if nurses can't take lunch breaks, there's not enough nurses. That's what that tells me."
Union officials initially issued a news release Monday afternoon announcing that they had filed the state labor charges. However, Boone later said she had yet to file any charges, adding that she simply planned to do so before Wednesday's picket.
Boone would like state labor officials to issue a cease-and-desist order forcing the hospital to end the alleged practice, and possibly award the nurses back pay. She said she did not know how many nurses were affected.
"There's a group of nurses that are working through their half-hour lunch, and their supervisors are going back and clocking them out," Boone said. "It's happened more than once. It's no coincidence."
Wednesday's informational picket, which is scheduled to include officials from other unions as well as health-care workers from other hospitals, is intended as a show of support for the nurses' bargaining team, Boone said.
"Columbia has been consistently stalling" in the negotiations, Boone said. "We hope to take care of this soon."
Carraway denied Columbia had employed any kind of delaying tactics and said the two sides should be able to come to an agreement on a contract soon.
"We continue to be open and willing to close the gap on any of the issues," Carraway said.