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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Amid Stalled Labor Talks, Nurses to Vote on Maternity Contracts

August 15, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concerned about what they consider to be short-staffed maternity wards, nurses at St. John's hospitals in Oxnard and Camarillo are set to vote today on whether to negotiate separate contracts for nurses who assist in labor and delivery.

"One in three nurses in labor and delivery have left St. John's in Oxnard because short-staffing has forced them to work in unsafe conditions," said Maura Kealey, state health care coordinator for the Service Employees Industrial Union. "If they're assigned to four women in labor and the condition of one worsens, what do they do with the other three? It's horrible. And their licenses are on the line."

Ten of 31 maternity nurse positions are vacant at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and two positions are vacant in the small maternity unit at St. John's Pleasant Valley, Kealey said.

Jan Duffy, vice president of operations for the two hospitals, said the situation at St. John's is a microcosm of nursing shortages nationwide. While she agreed that the shortage in labor and delivery was "an urgent matter," she said it posed no threat to patients.

"I would not consider our staffing situation dangerous," she said.

She said the hospital has taken several steps to address the situation--including attempting to negotiate an interim agreement with maternity ward nurses, reassigning duties normally handled by labor and delivery nurses and bringing in several temporary nurses to help.

Nurses said today's vote addresses not only a worsening situation in labor-and-delivery units, but reflects the lack of progress in negotiations with administrators since the majority of the hospitals' 500 nurses voted in January to unionize.

The union is voting to separate negotiations for maternity unit nurses because short-staffing is most acute there, said nurse Susan Franks, a member of the bargaining team.

Administrators refused last week to hold an emergency meeting to resolve the problem and rejected the nurses' offer to fast-track negotiations so staff problems could be addressed, Franks said.

"We're asking the nurses, 'What do you want to do about this crisis in this department? Should we just negotiate changes for labor and deliver at this point?"' Franks said. "So this is a vote to solve an immediate crisis in staffing."

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Duffy said the hospital would welcome working with the union to develop a short-term solution for labor and delivery nurses while continuing to bargain with the entire nursing population.

Kealey said St. John's administrators have estimated that contract negotiations will continue for a year.

In the meantime, Kealey said, nurses are leaving for better wages and safer working conditions at hospitals such as Community Memorial in Ventura and Los Robles in Thousand Oaks.

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Times Community News reporter Jenifer Ragland contributed to this story.

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