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Nurses Locked Out in Pension Fight

As its nurses hold a one-day strike, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center hires temps to replace the regulars for five days.

October 24, 2002|Richard Marosi and Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writers

Hundreds of nurses formed picket lines Wednesday around Long Beach Memorial Medical Center as a labor dispute over wages and pensions reached a new and critical phase.

About 200 replacement nurses bused into the hospital at 6 a.m. provided patient care, while the picketers -- some wearing their smocks and caps -- waved signs outside and chanted, "We are the nurses, mighty, mighty nurses."

Union and hospital officials reported no progress in restarting talks that broke down about two weeks ago. Hospital officials responded to the one-day strike with a four-day lockout notice, and said nurses returning to work this morning would be turned away.

Although some picketers called the replacement nurses "slime," the demonstrations were noisy, but peaceful. "It's been calm. Very organized. Very professional," said Terry Starkman, a hospital spokeswoman.

The strike was the largest job action at a California hospital in more than four years, and highlighted the labor strife occurring at some of the largest hospitals in the county.

Local nurses have begun organizing and taking firmer negotiating stances in response to dramatic changes in the health-care industry in the last decade.

The Long Beach dispute, which involves about 1,300 recently unionized nurses, centers on demands for a new pension program, better staffing and pay hikes for veteran nurses.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, said the medical center was operating smoothly Wednesday, with about 500 patients receiving care from nurses from a Colorado-based temporary-staffing firm. About 480 nurses, split to staff 12-hour shifts, have been hired. "All of our units are functioning quite well," said Dr. Gainer Pillsbury, the hospital's medical director.

Union leaders, however, questioned the quality of care. They kept nurse "task forces" ready in case of emergencies.

"For the hospital to expose the community to questionable care by replacement staff is not a positive scenario," said Charles Idelson, a spokesman for the California Nurses Assn.

The hospital agreed to hire the replacements for a minimum of five days, hence the lockout through Sunday. Union officials said the money could have helped fund a pension program.

The nurses are seeking a pension plan, funded by the hospital, that would guarantee monthly payments after retirement. That differs from the current plan that is funded by employer and employee contributions and functions similarly to a 401(k) retirement plan.

Union leaders say that the hospital's contributions to the current plan can fluctuate depending on revenues and that the plan doesn't provide security.

"For the nurses that have given a lifetime to the hospital of service, we think they deserve a pension," said nurse Margie Keenan, who has worked at Long Beach Memorial for 29 years.

Keenan, a member of the union's negotiating team, said a secure pension plan would go a long way toward reversing a steady departure of nurses from the hospital during their first five years of employment. The California Nurses Assn. says that 47% of the hospital's nurses have less than five years of experience there.

Pillsbury, the medical director, said the hospital has agreed to study the creation of a pension plan, but is not willing to commit to establishing one.

"The financial abilities of those [other hospital] systems to put in place or guarantee defined benefit programs may be different than ours," he said.

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