Community Hospital RNs cite patient safety concerns at protest

Ellen Mockridge, a registered nurse at Community Hospital Long Beach for 30 years, said her life was put at risk because there are not enough nurses on staff.

Once, Mockridge said she went to check on a patient with AIDS who was in an isolation room. Because there wasn’t another nurse to assist her, Mockridge said she was stuck with a needle and had to take off work for three months. She also had to take medication that she said compromised her immune system and prevented her from taking her arthritis medicine.

“Normally, we take someone in with us in an isolation room to help out,” she said. “Fortunately, I’m OK, but that was a scary time.”

Mockridge was one of about five nurses – members of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United unions – who held a press conference and candlelight vigil Tuesday night to express concerns about what they said are unfair patient and nurse practices at Community Hospital.

Community’s nurses spoke of their concerns about safe staffing levels, of nurses having a voice in patient care, competitive pay and health benefits to ensure recruitment and retention of experienced nurses at the hospital.

Community nurses joined the CNA, the state’s largest organization of nurses, in December 2012. They said in a statement Tuesday that Community management hasn’t taken serious action at the bargaining table to rectify the conditions they’re concerned about. One particular concern is making sure Community is in full compliance with California's nurse-to-patient staffing ratio law.

Sherine Cooper, who has worked in the Community Hospital heart center for five years, said the hospital is above the legal limit for the number of patients per nurse, claiming at times it is double the legal limit for 30 minutes at a time when nurses are on their breaks or lunches. Every department has a different staffing ratio.

“It puts our patients’ lives at risk when we have to cover more than we’re legally supposed to be taking care of,” Cooper said. “Nothing could happen in that time or something very serious can happen in that time. I don’t feel we should be playing that kind of game with people’s lives in order to save money.”

Richele Steele, a Community Hospital spokeswoman, said the hospital complies with the state standards for nurse-to-patient ratios.

Another nurse, Jackie McKay, who has worked in the intensive care unit for 28 years, said to save money, the hospital has hired “inexperienced nurses.”

“It’s not a factory. It’s not a bakery,” she said. “It’s people’s lives.”

The nurses said Community executives should at least match the standards achieved by nurses at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. Because of what the nurses say are Memorial’s higher standards and higher pay rate, they argued that prospective nurses would be more inclined to apply there than at Community.

None of the nurses interviewed by the Register would discuss their specific pay rate.

“When a new nurse is looking for a job and seeing two hospitals roughly three miles apart, and one has much better compensation, where are these individuals going to go?” asked Nathan Holtzman, who has worked in behavioral health at Community for two years. “They’re going to go to Memorial.”

Margie Keenan, a nurse at Memorial for 40 years, was there in support of Community’s nurses and said there needs to be a single standard of care for all patients in Long Beach. Keenan said Community is a vital hospital for beach-area residents who would otherwise have to drive farther to St. Mary Medical Center.

Despite the protests, Steele said the hospital has made progress and improvements in patient care.

“MemorialCare has invested more than $10 million in clinical technology and equipment to improve patient care services and (Community) RNs on average have received a 12.8 percent increase to their wages,” Steele said. (Community Hospital became part of MemorialCare Health System in 2011.)

Steele said three additional negotiation sessions have been scheduled for the next few weeks.

Long Beach Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske said at the event that the public should be concerned when the people taking care of the patients are worried about patient safety.

“We need to listen to them and say this is not acceptable,” said Schipske, who is a registered nurse. “They should be given what they need to do their jobs.”