Memorial Hospital nurses go on strike

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital nurses went on strike Monday morning, protesting what they say are significant cuts to their benefits that put them behind other nurses at Kaiser or Sutter hospitals.

Officials at St. Joseph Health, which runs Memorial Hospital, say the benefits they’re offering are “competitive” based on their market analysis.

Throughout the day Monday, nurses, mostly dressed in blue, carried signs up and down Montgomery Drive as numerous passers-by honked their vehicle horns in support. At 5 a.m., when the strike began, about 150 nurses launched the two-day picket

The action was sparked by proposed cuts to benefits, nurses said Monday. The Staff Nurses Association, which represents about 650 nurses at Memorial, has been in on-and-off negotiations since 2012, when the nurses’ previous contract expired.

“We go in thinking we’re negotiating, but we’re not negotiating - it’s all takeaways,” said Susan Norris, a perioperative services nurse who walked the picket line Monday.

Norris carried a picket sign that read, “Don’t take away our sick-time.”

The Memorial Hospital strike is one of two planned strikes this week by unions representing more than 1,000 nurses in Santa Rosa. At Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, nurses represented by the California Nurses Association are expected to strike Thursday. CAN represents about 420 Sutter nurses.

Memorial Hospital nurses said Monday they oppose proposed benefits cuts that include the replacement of sick leave with a short-term disability plan; the elimination of the retirement medical stipend; the reduction of the 401(a) retirement contribution for senior nurses; and a reduction in vacation time.

These proposals come at a time when Memorial Hospital, during the first six months of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, made $40 million above its costs, said SNA president Sue Gadbois.

“We’re wondering why they need to make cuts,” Gadbois said.

Robert Eisen, regional vice president of human resources for St. Joseph Health’s Northern California region, said competing hospitals do offer some compensation “components” that “may have exceeded” proposals put forth in the hospital’s “best and last final offer” made on April 13.

But he said the hospital’s “offer is fair and just and competitive based on market analysis that we’ve seen.” Eisen said he could not reveal details of the proposed nurses’ contract and its competitive aspects because of the ongoing negotiations.

Monday’s action marks the fifth time Memorial nurses have gone on strike since 2012.

Striking nurses said that many of their colleagues have either retired early or left Memorial Hospital for jobs with Kaiser Permanente or Sutter Health in Santa Rosa. One of the main reasons, they said, was better benefits.

“They have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, so people are leaving,” said Anita Cook, a resource nurse at Memorial Hospital.

Several striking nurses who work in the hospital’s eight-room operating unit said they’ve seen about seven nurses from their recent ranks of 23 leave since November, with only one of them retiring. One nurse, who asked not to use her name because she feared retribution, said there aren’t enough nurses to fill the last three weeks of the six-week operating room schedule that began Sunday.

Eisen said the hospital has enough staff to fill the nursing schedules. He said he could not immediately respond to specific claims about operating room staffing.

Eisen said last week that Memorial is offering a 7 percent wage increase over two years. This includes a 2 percent retroactive wage increase to last October; a 3 percent wage increase effective this October; and a 2 percent wage increase effective October 2016.

Eisen said the proposed changes to nurses’ benefits packages are necessary and reflect changing economics in health care. He said that while some local hospitals may have “components of compensation” that are more attractive than what St. Joseph is offering, he insisted the overall benefits package remains competitive.

“Our hope continues to be the same hope,” he said. “That we arrive at a contract that both parties can be proud of, and we continue to care for the patients in the community. We certainly want to resolve this and move forward.”

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