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Judge temporarily bars nurses' strike at UC hospitals

The San Francisco jurist says a strike would be contrary to the public interest and might break the law. The California Nurses Assn. blames staffing problems for the labor unrest.

June 09, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

A California judge issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday barring thousands of nurses from striking this week at University of California hospitals and student health centers.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch said that a strike would be contrary to public interest and might break the law. The order was requested by the California Public Employment Relations Board, a state regulatory agency that handles public employee relations.

Officials at the California Nurses Assn., which had threatened the strike said they were still discussing next steps. When a judge issued a similar order to prevent them from striking in 2005, union officials decided to abide by the order, said union spokesman Chuck Idelson. Idelson, who has been with the union for 18 years, said he could not recall any other examples of a California judge issuing orders to bar a union from striking.

"We're having an emergency meeting tonight of our bargaining team who are going to review all of our options on this," Idelson said. "No decision of this court is going to fix the staffing problems that are endemic in the UC hospital system."

The strike was planned after contract negotiations broke down in August over their demand that hospital officials increase staffing. They argued the hospitals put patients at risk by forcing nurses to work during their breaks and cover for each other.

On Tuesday, nurses complained that instead of making hires to improve nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, university and hospital officials have spent millions to block the strike, hiring high-powered lawyers from the San Francisco-based labor law firm Littler Mendelson and strike-breaking temporary nurses from across the country.

University of California officials called the union's strike plan a tactical ploy and disputed claims that patient safety was at risk.

"UC nurses are paid properly, and deservingly so," said Dwaine Duckett, UC vice president for human resources. "They have a tough job and they're good at it. Patient safety also is not an issue, contrary to what the CNA leadership had been claiming in public. Staffing ratios are regulated by the state, and the university complies with the law."

UC officials have paid staffing agencies to fly in thousands of backup nurses this week at an estimated cost of $10 million to $15 million, according to UC spokesman Steve Montiel. Montiel said the injunction would allow officials to scale back the effort. But it was unclear how much they could reduce costs, he said, since the backup nurses had already started arriving.

Nearly 12,000 nurses had planned to strike at the university's five hospitals, as well as Marina del Rey Hospital, Citrus Valley Medical Center and Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center San Pedro Jacobs said. The injunction does not bar nurses from striking at the three private hospitals.

Nurses still plan to strike there Thursday and to rally outside University of California medical facilities, union spokeswoman Liz Jacobs said.

Before Tuesday's hearing, more than a dozen nurses protested outside the courthouse.

"We see every day nurses having to watch other nurses' patients," said Geri Jenkins, a union official and registered nurse at the UC San Diego Health System. "The nurse shouldn't be put in a place where she is choosing between going to lunch and making sure her patients are safe."

The base pay for University of California nurses is about $74,328, but nurses with more experience or more demanding jobs can earn more than $122,000, under their most recent contract. All nurses receive health benefits and pensions, a union spokeswoman said.

Under the current contract, University of California nurses would receive a 2% raise in September instead of the standard 4% to 5% raise common at other large health systems, according to union negotiator Beth Kean.

The UC hospitals turned a profit this year and UC regents rewarded 38 hospital executives with $3.1 million in bonuses in January. Regents also approved another $33.7 million in bonuses for other hospital employees, including nurses.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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