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After months of pre-contract negotiations between Petaluma Valley Hospital nurses and the hospital management team, disagreements over pay and scheduling for on-call shifts have led the nurses to declare a one-day strike set for June 13.

Hospital staff maintains that service will be unaffected since they are temporarily staffing the striking employee's positions with replacement nurses.

"Our concern, first and foremost, is maintaining patient safety and that the staff who chooses to come to work, can come to work," said Jane Read, the hospital's vice president of operations. "If they choose not to come that's fine, but we need to serve our patients in Petaluma."

Per the hospital's contract with US Nurses to bring in replacement nurses during employee strikes, the replacement nurses will remain at the hospital for five days, forcing striking employees to miss a total of five days of work.

Read said that while this is not the hospital's preference, it must honor its staff's right to strike and keep the hospital running while employees are out.

The main issue of contention between the two parties is the hospital's decision to decrease on-call pay for nurses from 50 percent down to 30 percent of a nurse's normal salary and the decision to require nurses who take on-call shifts to take them in 48- and 72-hour blocks, instead of breaking the shifts up as they currently do.

Petaluma registered nurse Kitty Brown, who has been a nurse for 48 years, said that right now it is typical for a nurse to work her eight-hour scheduled shift, and then to be on-call for an additional 16 hours at a time. She said that from a nurse's standpoint, being on-call for 16 hours at a time is hard enough, but that placing nurses on longer stints has exhausted the staff and put patient care at risk.

"You can't have someone on call for 48 hours straight. It's not safe," Brown said. "That's the difference between nurses controlling the on-call schedule and having someone who doesn't understand how much work it takes to be on-call."

Read contended that only 25 percent of the nursing staff takes on-call shifts and that once they are scheduled, the nurses can switch shifts with any other on-call nurses to break up their shifts any way they see fit. She also said that the hospital keeps a close eye on safe practices and would never do anything to put patient safety at risk.

But Brown said that in reality, the opportunity to change nurse's schedules to maintain safe working environments is very low.

After six different bargaining sessions between the nurses and the hospital that date back to last September, Brown said the nurses union — California Nurses Association — asked the hospital to shelve the issue until their official contract negotiations begin later this year.

The hospital then declared negotiations at an impasse, which allowed hospital management to circumvent further negotiations and implement the new policy. Read said that the hospital has been reasonable in negotiation and that the strike was not what she had hoped for.

But Brown disagreed and said that declaring an impasse and refusing to put the issue on the back burner until a later date was indicative of their employer's negotiating tactics.

"They basically did something that's not permissible in labor law by declaring an impasse and unilaterally implemented a policy," she said. "That's why we felt compelled to strike."

Katy Hillenmeyer, who handles media relations for St. Joseph's Hospital, said that it is stipulated in the nurses contract that the hospital has the right to assign on-call shifts if needed, and that doing so in no way violates any portion of the nurses contract. She added that bargaining by the hospital and St. Joseph representatives has consistently been in good faith, but that CAN has refused to offer any counter-proposals during the negotiations.

In regards to the other concern over decreased pay, Hillenmeyer said that on-call nurses will still average about $21 per hour during on-call shifts, will still receive additional shift incentives that increase that hourly amount even more and have been offered a signing bonus of $1750 should they choose to ratify.

But Brown said that Hillenmeyer's numbers are based on nurses who receive the highest compensation and are not reflective of what the average will receive, which is closer to $14-16 per hour.

She added that pay is not the nurses' main concern and that they are more worried about exhaustion and patient safety than the drop in compensation.

(Contact janelle Wetzsten at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)