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Petaluma nurses stage hospital strike


About 100 nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital staged a one-day walk-out Wednesday, the first labor strike in the hospital's 30-year history.

The hospital responded by bringing in replacement nurses on five-day contacts, essentially locking out the union nurses for four days.

The members of the California Nurses Association said they were protesting significant cuts to stand-by pay for on-call nurses, as well as mandatory on-call scheduling they said threatens patient safety.

The union represents about 160 registered nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital, which is operated by St. Joseph Health, Sonoma County.

St. Joseph officials said the hospital, with an in-patient load Wednesday of less than 40, was safely staffed with contract replacement nurses and some union nurses who crossed the picket line.

"We are continuing to provide the same high quality, safe patient care that we provide every day," said Debra Miller, vice president of human resources for St. Joseph.

Miller said that union nurses who chose to cross the picket line were offered shuttle service to the hospital. Union officials estimated about 14 union nurses chose not to strike and showed up for work.

"We had a few who crossed the picket line and they brought them in vans with the windows covered like we were going to take their first born," said Kitty Brown, a registered nurse who works in the medical surgical unit and who also is a union negotiator.

Throughout the day, nurses stood near the entrance to the hospital, on the corner of North McDowell Boulevard and Lynch Creek Way, some of them fueled by a diet of donuts, pizza and coffee. They held up picket signs as cars, trucks and trailers drove by honking their horns.

When the last contract was approved, nurses agreed to discuss the issue of stand-by pay as a "reopener," separate from negotiations over the union's labor agreement. Formal talks on the next contract are expected to begin three months before the current contract expires in December.

On May 13, during the interim negotiations, the hospital imposed a 40 percent cut to stand-by pay, which had been 50 percent of a nurses' regular pay. The change dropped it to 30 percent of pay. Nurses responded by refusing to fill scheduled on-call shifts. These shifts were previously filled by the nurses on a volunteer basis.

Jane Read, vice president of operations at Petaluma Valley Hospital, said that patient saftey rules require the hospital to have nurses on-call during periods when there are no scheduled surgeries. She said the cuts affect only 25 percent of nurses. That action triggered the strike, nurses said.

Hospital officials say the resulting stand-by pay rate for the average nurse is about $21 an hour. But some picketing nurses said Wednesday that the average standby pay pay would be more like $17 an hour.

For a nurse with children, that rate is not much more than what she must pay a baby sitter to be available should the nurse be called to work on 20 minutes notice.

Nurses said they wanted St. Joseph to negotiate stand-by pay as part of the upcoming contract negotiations. "All we wanted was to bring it to the table and trade A for B and B for C," said Karen Becker, a nurse who works in the post-anesthesia care unit.

Read, however, said the hospital "loses money every single month" and that in order to keep the hospital financially sound, "we need to make some economic changes. We can't wait."

Miller said those nurses who did not show up for work Wednesday would not be allowed to come back for five days because the agency the hospital uses to provide replacement nurses requires a five-day minimum contract.

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