Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital nurses begin two-day strike

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital nurses went on strike Monday for the third time since October, launching a two-day walkout to protest the direction of labor talks.

Hospital management and the Santa Rosa-based Staff Nurses Association accused each other of refusing to compromise in the negotiations.

The first nurses formed a picket line after their shift ended at 5 a.m. Monday. Later in the morning, about two dozen nurses joined them in front of the hospital on Montgomery Drive.

"We've been negotiating, and we've made progress on some issue, but not on the critical issues," said Sue Gadbois, president of the union, which represents about 650 nurses.

Gadbois said outstanding issues include disagreements over staffing, job security, benefits and pay. She said the hospital is proposing significant increases to health insurance contributions, in some cases doubling or tripling premiums.

Debra Miller, vice president of human resources for St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, which runs Memorial Hospital, said the hospital has backed off an initial proposal to increase benefit contributions paid by full-time nurses.

Instead, the hospital is seeking to increase benefits contributions paid by part-time nurses. Miller said the hospital's annual contribution to health benefits for two part-time nurses is almost double what it would pay for one employee working the same number of hours.

Miller pointed out that Memorial Hospital, along with every other hospital in the nation, will be getting significantly less money in government reimbursements because of budget agreements related to the federal government's "fiscal cliff" and full implementation of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul in 2014.

"We need to get our costs down, and the lion's share of our costs is labor," Miller said.

But the union argues the hospital has a healthy operating margin, which it says could be used to hire more staff and increase wages.

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