Nurses seek health district's help in labor dispute

Even though the Petaluma Valley Hospital's first ever one-day nurses strike held last Wednesday has concluded, union nurses and hospital management remain at odds, leaving the nurses looking to the Petaluma Health Care District to intervene.

Labor negotiations between hospital management and the union nurses broke down last month when the hospital tried to get the nurses to ratify the following: a reduction in on-call -shifts where nurses must be available to work at the hospital within 30 minutes of a call; a pay reduction from 50 percent of their regular salary down to 30 percent for being on call; and an increase in the length of on-call shifts from 16 hours up to 48 and 72 hours.

When the nurses refused to accept these changes and asked to shelve the issue until formal contract negotiations begin in September, the hospital declared negotiations at an impasse, which allowed management to circumvent further negotiations and implement the new policy without nurses agreeing.

Union nurses responded by staging a one-day strike in protest of the changes. What started out as a one-day statement turned into a five-day lockout for the nurses who chose to participate in the strike. The hospital was forced to bring in replacement nurses for the one-day strike and used a staffing company whose contract with the hospital stipulated that replacements nurses be on staff for a minimum of five days.

Pam Koch, an obstetrics nurse at Petaluma Valley and a negotiation representative for the union nurses, said that the hospital used the contract with the staffing company as an excuse to lock out the nurses and that it was reflective of the rocky relationship between the nurses union and hospital management.

Koch added that nurses expected the Health Care District to mediate between hospital management and the bargaining units once negotiations became dead-locked. She said that the district set up meetings with all three parties, but did little to facilitate the talks — something she said is inexcusable for an elected body charged with maintaining the hospital's operating standards.

"We will be coming to the board again because we aren't convinced they are best serving our community," she said. "We understand that St. Joseph's runs the hospital, but if the board is really concerned about the community, then they need to step in."

The district owns the hospital's building and land. It leases the facility to St. Joseph's Health System, which runs the hospital itself and contracts staff.

The district's lease with St. Joseph's will be expiring in approximately four years, at which point the district can either renew its agreement with St. Joseph's, contract with a different health care organization, or manage the hospital itself.

A publicly elected, five-member board oversees the Health Care District, with each member serving a four-year term. Koch contended that nurses speak for the community and said that because the district is responsible for representing the community, it should have a board composed of people who are listening to the nurses.

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