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Nurses at 2 Hospitals Threaten to Strike Dec. 14

Health care: Workers at two St. John's facilities want more competitive wages and fewer patients to monitor. A federal mediator is now involved.


Saying they are overworked and underpaid, registered nurses at St. John's Regional Medical Center and St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital said Tuesday they would strike Dec. 14 unless they can reach a deal with hospital management soon.

Both sides have negotiated since March, but each accuses the other of bargaining in bad faith. A federal mediator has been appointed to help settle the dispute.

During a news conference Tuesday in front of St. John's medical center in Oxnard, a group of nurses said they wanted hospital administrators to limit the number of patients each nurse should care for per shift and to make wages more competitive.

They also said the strike, which could come in the middle of the winter flu season, would protect patients.

"We cannot continue to be forced to take care of more patients than is safe," said Susan Franks, an emergency department nurse at St. John's in Oxnard and part of the union bargaining team.

Jerri Bell, another nurse, said she could no longer work under such conditions and urged St. John's to begin transferring patients to other facilities in preparation for the strike.

St. John's chief operating officer, Charles Padilla, seemed little inclined to take her advice.

Padilla said the union had rejected a $1.2-million pay increase that would boost hourly wages. Patient-to-nurse ratios, he said, would be discussed, but they are not normally part of contract talks.

"We are going to do two things--keep our contingency plan in place and keep negotiating," he said.

He wouldn't give details of the contingency plan except to say that it would involve bringing in other nurses if the 530 RNs at both hospitals strike.

"We would like to see the union put a wage proposal on the table that is reasonable and prudent," Padilla said.

He said that both hospitals, owned by Catholic Healthcare West, are suffering economic difficulties and that a strike would jeopardize "vital health-care services in our community."

But nurses say they have reached a crisis point.

During the news conference, they told of seriously ill patients being treated in hospital corridors because of a lack of space. They cited an example of a stroke victim not receiving needed blood thinners because harried nurses were too busy with other patients.

In the labor-and-delivery department, they said, two nurses care for six or seven patients when the ratio should be more like one nurse to two or three patients.

They also said the California Department of Health Services cited both hospitals in October for understaffing violations involving patients being held and treated on gurneys in the hallways of the hospitals' emergency rooms.

Padilla said that union members had flooded state regulators with more than 100 complaints, and that on two or three occasions inspectors found they were slightly understaffed.

Yet he said that the quality of care at both facilities remains excellent and that he knew of no reports of patients being seen in hallways.

The union hasn't spelled out exactly how much of a pay increase it wants.

Chris Slane, a union negotiator and nurse at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, said the union wants equity in nurse pay scales, but so far there is no magic number nurses are aiming at.

Franks said she felt horrible about the prospect of going on strike, especially during the flu season.

"We will meet every day with the hospital to try and work this out," she said.

Slane said he knew that striking nurses are not popular with the public. "But it's awful to walk off a shift and feel you haven't given patients the best care," he said.

Earlier this month, about 98% of the union's nurses voted to authorize a strike but agreed to give their bargaining team 10 days to reach an agreement with administrators.

At the same time, administrators took out full-page newspaper advertisements saying a strike would be reckless and irresponsible. They also accused the union of waging a campaign against the hospital and threatening its ability to provide quality care.

A majority of the nurses voted in January to join the Service Employees International Union. They say they are getting about $3 to $5 an hour less than nurses at other hospitals in the region.

The two sides will meet again today for further talks.

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