Contract negotiations between 700 nurses represented by the California Nurses Association and Mills-Peninsula Health Services, a Sutter Health hospital, are deadlocked with no end in sight.
"It’s not looking good to end peacefully," said Liz Jacobs, spokeswoman for the state nursing union.
The current contract, set to end July 30 after both parties agreed to a one-month extension, was signed in 2008 following three strikes and 15 months of discussions.
Negotiations, now in their fifth round, began with Sutter’s management team presenting a 20-page list of "takeaways," Jacobs said. Cutbacks include slashing nurses’ benefits, giving the hospital the power to replace registered nurses with lower-paid counterparts, and eliminating a number of roles nurses currently play at the hospital.
The union, which vigorously opposes the changes, says they could ultimately threaten patient health, a point that Sutter officials call "bogus."
"The management bargaining team would never craft a proposal that would compromise patient safety," said Debbie Goodin, regional vice president for human resources for Sutter.
"Today, for every Medicare dollar that we spend, we lose about 28 cents," Goodin said. "So as the Medicare population grows, in order for us to care for Medicare patients and patients that we expect will now be covered by health care reform, we have to spend less to provide a high level of care."
Pay and benefits are the hospital’s No. 1 expense, Goodin said, and average salaries for nurses at Mills are $140,000, a sum that is "out of sync with market rates."
But Jenel Morgan, a nurse on the union’s bargaining team, said the hospital shouldn’t be looking to make cuts "from the bedside."
"We have no way of knowing the bonuses or raises senior management are getting, but there have been no layoffs or cutbacks of senior management that I’m aware of," Morgan said.
Perhaps most controversial among a long list of Mills’ proposals is a shift to fill registered nurse vacancies with licensed vocational nurses.
"It makes me suspicious," said Morgan, who fears the hospital plans to gradually replace registered nurses with lower-paid and less-trained licensed vocational nurses, as many hospitals have done around the country. Morgan said such a shift would pose a health risk to patients.
Goodin said the hospital has no such plans.
"But we want some flexibility to evaluate the best level of skill for the position," she said.
Morgan said other proposals include expanding the task load of nurses on duty and reducing the presence of break nurses and project nurses. The union’s concern is that if nurses have less time to spend at patients’ bedsides, it will limit their ability to provide relief and prevent catastrophes.
The California Nurses Association recently signed a new contract with the San Mateo Medical Center after bitter fights over the loss of three nursing positions. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors ultimately agreed to restore the positions and is expected to sign off on the agreement July 26.
Here are some of the terms of Mills-Peninsula Health Service’s contract proposal.
Source: California Nurses Association and Mills-Peninsula Health Services