Nurses in multi-colored scrubs lined the streets in front of Children’s Hospital Oakland Tuesday, striking against what they say is a proposed cut in their health care benefits. Passing cars, BART trains and fire engines honked in support of the hospital’s nearly 800 registered nurses as they began a three-day strike led by the California Nurses Association (CNA). The hospital will continue operating with over 100 replacement nurses until the strike is scheduled to end Friday morning.
Negotiators for the hospital and nurses’ union have been unable to agree on a new contract since May 19, and have been operating with a temporary contract since July. Both sides signed off on a one-year wage freeze, but talks broke down in September when hospital representatives insisted on restructuring health care options to include an employee contribution of 15 percent toward their health care plan. According to Nato Green, spokesperson for the nurses’ union, that would be one of the highest employee contribution rates of any Bay Area hospital.
Under the latest health care plan proposed by the hospital, nurses would pay up to $311 per month in premiums for a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan. Around 60 percent of the hospital’s nurses currently pay no premiums for the same PPO plan. The hospital would also offer two employer-paid health care options, but each either provides a lower level of coverage or would require employees to change providers. The CNA announced the strike on October 1.
“They seem to think that we’re not worthy of health care,” said David Laquidara, a registered nurse who has worked at the hospital for nine years. “They think management is more important than health care for nurses.”
Guy Miller, a nurse at Children’s Hospital Oakland since 1971, says his current medical coverage is affordable, but the proposed increase would strain the budgets of others. “Rather than paying a little bit at a time, they want to bump it way up,” said Miller. “There are single moms and dads here. That’s a big difference.”
The CNA estimates that nurses could end up paying an extra $4,000 per year toward health insurance which, when combined with the proposed wage freeze, would amount to a pay cut. “At Children’s they are taking advantage of people’s anxieties about the economy to try to get concessions they couldn’t get in better times,” said Green. “They would rather philosophically have workers pay more for health care. For most of our members it is a disruption in care.”
According to hospital officials, the change in coverage is needed to adjust to the economic downturn and the rising cost of health care plans. In the previous three-year labor agreement, nurses received pay increases of around 5 percent each year, which the union says is in line with other Bay Area hospitals.
Children’s Hospital Oakland has acknowledged its effort to cut costs and bring operations out of the red. According to an April, 2010, report, the hospital has lost $80 million in the last four years, including $26 million in 2009. Restructuring nurses’ health care will result in a savings of $1 million for the hospital, according to the CNA.
“I really believe the CNA is out of touch with the economic realities,” said Nancy Shibata, spokesperson for Children’s Hospital Oakland. “Our nurses are very well paid. We value them tremendously—that’s why we want to pay them well. I think the nurses are caught in the middle of this.”
Hospital officials put the average nurse’s salary at $136,000. But according to Green, standing across from Tuesday’s picket line wearing a red union shirt and dark sunglasses, that number is exaggerated. “Do any of you here make $136,000?” he shouted towards a circle of nurses near a stack of picket signs.
“In my dreams,” replied one nurse.
“I would say it’s more in the $70,000 to $80,000 range,” said Green.
Many passersby supported the picketing nurses on Tuesday, but a Sacramento businesswoman named Cynthia, who was visiting her nephew in the hospital and does not have health insurance, expressed frustration at the strike. “Certain groups are crying over what they don’t have when they need to see what they do,” said Cynthia, who asked that her last name not be published. She said her small company is going under and that she can no longer afford health insurance for her employees. “We literally have no money to pay our Kaiser bill or our AFLAC bill,” she said. “None of us have coverage.”
The CNA plans a large rally at noon on Wednesday. California Assemblymembers Nancy Skinner and Sandré Swanson are expected to attend along with nurses from surrounding Bay Area hospitals. Nurses say they will be back at work Friday morning, but a new agreement or contract are not expected any time soon.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said hospital spokeswoman Shibata. “I just hope the CNA will negotiate. We haven’t negotiated since September 29. Friday morning at 7am we will go back to business as usual.”