Nurses at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, who are currently in negotiations over a new union contract, went on strike Thursday morning, their fourth walkout since labor talks began last fall.

The strike takes place going into what is usually the second-busiest holiday weekend for the hospital's trauma center.

Beginning at 5 a.m., nurses with the Santa Rosa-based Staff Nurses Association picketed in front of Memorial Hospital on Montgomery Drive, carrying familiar blue signs decrying unsafe staffing at the hospital. Striking nurses said hospital management has balked at increasing staffing of break relief nurses, patient transporters and night-time specialty float nurses.

"On many of my shifts, it takes hours for my patients to see an ER doctor," said one striking emergency department nurse, who asked that her name not be used because she feared being targeted by management. "I find myself constantly apologizing for the hospital."

She and other nurses said that hospital officials are cutting too many corners on staffing at a time when the number of uninsured and under-insured patients has rapidly grown from a generation ago. The SNA represents nearly 650 nurses at Memorial.

Hospital officials said both sides have come to some agreement on staffing issues and that the real sticking points are wages and benefits.

"The outstanding issues that the hospital has on the table are purely economics," said Debra Miller, vice president for human resources at St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, which owns Memorial Hospital.

The hospital has proposed a 4.5 percent wage increase over three years but the union wants a 6.5 percent increase over the term of the contract, which has yet to be determined, according to union and hospital officials. The hospital also wants:

; part-time nurses to pay more money for their benefits.

; a reduction in the standby rate paid to on-call nurses from 50 percent to 30 percent.

; a reduction in the night-shift differential from 25 percent to 20 percent.

Nurses reject the idea that their strike is about pay and benefits.

"This is not about money," said Stacy Lewis, vice president of Staff Nurses Association. "We are patient advocates."

After four such strikes, both sides expressed frustration over the other's inability or unwillingness to bring talks to a conclusion. April 25 was the last time they sat down and negotiated with a federal labor mediator. Miller said there was "no movement" during that meeting.

Nurses said Thursday that talks were essentially stalled until they gave official notice of their strike 10 days ago, as required by federal labor laws.

Though a two-day strike was called by nurses, as in previous walkouts, striking nurses will not be allowed to return to the job until Tuesday.

Hospital officials said they were bound to hire replacement nurses for five days, the minimum term dictated by the replacement nurse agency.

Lewis said that since the strike was announced, both sides have agreed to meet June 6. Miller said the hospital would propose its "last, best and final offer" at that time.

As a result of the strike, St. Joseph Health will close its urgent care center in Windsor on Thursday and Friday. Windsor patients will be treated at St. Joseph's urgent care centers in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. respectively.

All urgent care centers will be open for regular hours starting Saturday.

Hospital officials say they are prepared for the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Last year, the hospital's trauma center treated 24 patients. Hospital officials said they expect to treat about 30 patients this weekend.

The the last three years, the Memorial Day weekend has been the second busiest holiday weekend next to Labor Day.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)