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.
Union stresses safety
The union has insisted its main concern is patient safety and adequate staffing levels. It has made several staffing proposals, including hiring a specialty float nurse for the night shift, designating break-relief nurses to cover meal breaks and establishing staffing levels in accordance with the level of illness of patients.
The hospital says it already has specialty nurses assigned to work the hospital during the night shift, fellow nurses cover those who take meal breaks and the existing contract already abides by state rules for minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, including those that take into account the severity of a patient's illness.
Also, nurses want an 8 percent wage increase over the period of the contract, while the hospital proposes a 4.5 percent increase.
Hospital officials have said the average nurse makes about $100,000 annually, but many union representatives dispute that figure.
Kery Poteracke, a 37-year Memorial Hospital nurse who is part of the negotiating team, said nurses' salaries are "all over the place" and many make much less than the average calculated by management.
Poteracke said a starting nurse on day shift makes $45.31 an hour and after 25 years will make $63.95 an hour. A starting nurse working the night shift would make $56.63 and after 25 years would make almost $80 an hour. There are many part-time nurses who don't make anywhere near $100,000, she said.
"My daughter is a nurse at the hospital, and she makes $45,000," Poteracke said. "The executive management team make well over $300,000 to $700,000 and above. And at this point they have not offered to take a cut in pay."