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6,000 nurses strike in California

By Michael Martinez and Sara Weisfeldt
updated 7:12 PM EST, Thu December 22, 2011
Striking nurses rally Thursday near a hospital in Long Beach, California.
Striking nurses rally Thursday near a hospital in Long Beach, California.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 6,000 California nurses staged a one-day strike at several hospitals
  • 2,000 nurses strike at two Long Beach hospitals
  • 4,000 more strike at nine San Francisco Bay area hospitals
  • Hospital officials say they are disappointed the strikes occur during holidays

Long Beach, California (CNN) -- About 6,000 California nurses staged a one-day strike at several hospitals Thursday, protesting what they called an "erosion of quality of care and cuts to patient protections," National Nurses United said.

In Long Beach, about 2,000 nurses staged a one-day strike at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children's Hospital, but nurses were later told that they will be locked out of their jobs for four days because replacements had to be hired in a five-day block, nurses told CNN.

The Long Beach registered nurses are in a dispute with management over RN-to-patient staffing levels and safe patient lift policies to prevent accidents and injuries, the union said.

The nurses are also objecting to hospital demands for increases in health care premiums, which they claimed would cost the nurses about $3,000 more in out-of-pocket premiums -- which the hospitals disputed.

Officials with Memorial Care Health System, which owns both Long Beach facilities, said that more than 30% of the 2,000 nurses decided not to participate in the strike.

"Over 30% of the nurses chose to cross the picket line," said Dr. Susan Melvin, associate chief medical officer of the Long Beach Memorial. "Every unit is open and fully functioning. From a physician perspective, they feel their patient care needs are being well met," Melvin told CNN.

Myra Gregorian, vice president of human resources at both hospitals, said the facilities were meeting state requirements on nurse-to-patient staffing.

"We comply with the law and compensate appropriately and it rarely happens," Gregorian said. "As a California hospital, we have state-mandated ratios, and we comply with state levels."

The two Long Beach hospitals offered the California Nurses Association a three-year contract that included at least 3% raises over each year, and Gregorian told CNN the union's claims about $3,000 premium increases were "not true."

The average premium increase is $4.76 per paycheck, which occurs every two weeks, and the maximum premium increase is $18.28 per paycheck, Gregorian told CNN.

The last contract expired September 30, Gregorian said.

"We have been negotiating with the union since July. We had 16 bargaining sessions. We were disappointed that they chose to do a strike over the holidays," Gregorian said. "We're looking forward to having our RNs return to work next week and despite these differences, we'll be able to ratify a contract soon."

Meanwhile, in the San Francisco Bay area, about 4,000 nurses were striking at nine facilities that are part of the Sutter Health corporation, the union said. The nurses are protesting what they described as "some 150 demands for major contract concessions in patient protections and health coverage for the RNs and their families," according to the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United.

"We are dealing with hospital corporations that are part of the 1% and behave just as abusively as Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers, and it is very sad that they show such disrespect for their communities, for the patients and for the nurses who take care of the patients who make money for these hospitals," said Charles Idelson, spokesperson for the California Nurses Association.

The "1%" remark refers to a slogan by the Occupy movement that contends the richest 1% of people write the rules of an unfair global economy.

Karen Garner, spokeswoman for Sutter Health, said the health facilities were committed to "providing our nurses competitive wages and benefits, while also doing our part to make health care more affordable for our patients."

"But the union demands new, costly benefits -- such as health care for life -- that will increase costs at our hospitals by tens of millions of dollars each year," Garner said in a statement.

"A nurse who chooses to work full-time at one (of) our hospitals with an open labor contract earns an average of $136,000 a year plus receives other generous benefits such as an employer-paid pension plan worth $84,000 per year on average for life and up to 40 days off per year," Garner said. "Most nurses also have the option of 100% employer-paid health benefits or a low-cost option."

CNN's Sara Weisfeldt reported from Long Beach and Michael Martinez from Los Angeles.

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