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Children’s Hospital Oakland nurses on 5-day strike

San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/11

By: Victoria Colliver
San Francisco Chronicle
May 6, 2011

Registered nurses at Children's Hospital Oakland walked off their jobs Thursday morning in the first day of a five-day strike that centers on disputes over health care benefits and other proposed changes to their contract.

The more than 700 registered nurses at Children's, represented by California Nurses Association-National Nurses United, have been trying to negotiate a contract for more than a year.

"It's not that we want a whole lot more," said Pam Bennett, a nurse at the hospital for 30 years who was on the picket line Thursday. "It's just that we don't want things taken away that we already have."

The nurses object to a proposal by hospital management that would require them to pay more for their health care. The hospital is offering two preferred provider organization, or PPO, plans - one that comes with a high deductible but no monthly contribution and another that would cost nearly $4,000 a year for family coverage.

The hospital is also offering to pay entirely for a Kaiser plan, but some nurses object to that because they say they would not be able to take their own children to Children's Hospital.

"We don't want to have these take-aways. Basically it amounts to a pay cut," said Randye Epstein, a neonatal intensive-care nurse who has worked at the hospital for nearly 30 years.

The current contract expired in July, and this is the second strike since. The nurses staged a three-day walkout in October.

Children's Hospital will remain operating at near normal capacity during the strike, which is scheduled to end at 7 a.m. Tuesday. The hospital has hired 125 replacement nurses and rescheduled elective procedures.

The 190-bed hospital has portrayed itself as struggling financially and the nurses as out of touch with the current economic reality. Children's Hospital has said it lost $17.9 million in 2009 and about $15 million last year.

Hospital officials have also said the average hourly rate for a nurse is $67.31, which equates to $140,000 a year for those who work 40 hours a week.

The nurses disputed that, saying nurses generally do not work five days a week because of the intense nature of their jobs.

"I'm not ashamed of the money we make," said Susan Segal, a nurse at the hospital for more than 26 years. "But they're basing that (the hospital's average wage estimate) on a hypothetical nurse who doesn't exist."

Veteran nurses were also upset about proposed changes that would require nurses who have worked at the hospital for more than 20 years to work one weekend a month. They are currently exempt from weekend work.

Hospital spokeswoman Erin Goldsmith said so many nurses have more than two decades experience at Children's that the hospital has trouble staffing weekend shifts, particularly in certain specialized units. Union officials said they've offered other staffing solutions, such as training less-experienced nurses for those units.

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