Striking nurses earn long-weekend lockout

Thousands of nurses walked off their jobs Thursday at 13 Bay Area hospitals, beginning a two-day strike.

The nurses picketed the hospitals and carried placards that called for safer staffing levels and "patients before profits."

The strike targets hospitals affiliated with Sutter Health. The hospital group brought in replacement workers to ensure they could continue operations.

It was business as usual, hospital officials said, with "babies being born, and people having surgery."

In San Mateo County, scores of nurses formed picket lines at Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame and Mills Health Center in San Mateo, both affiliates of Sutter Health. More than 650 nursesrepresented by the California Nurses Association work at the two facilities.

A hospital spokeswoman said nearly 40 percent of workers crossed the picket lines at the two Peninsula hospitals. But nurses on the picket lines called the figure "pie in the sky."

The nurses insisted that the hospital group's plan to lock out the nurses for three additional days after the strike ends Saturday is squeezing some nurses financially. That's why some crossed the picket line, even though they supported the strike, some nurses said.

Hospitals in the East Bay, including Alta Bates Summit Medical Center campuses in Berkeley and Oakland, also reported hundreds of nurses crossing the picket lines.

"We had a very good day, and things are going perfectly," said Margie O'Clair, spokeswoman for Mills-Peninsula Health Services, which operates Peninsula Medical Center and Mills Health Center. "About 40 percent of the nurses crossed the picket lines, and it made a big difference." O'Clair said 209 replacement nurses were brought in.

The strike is the second in two months by the nurses. The CNA and Sutter Health have not been able to reach a contract agreement in more than six months of negotiations. More than 95 percent of the Peninsula nurses walked out during the first strike.

Some people visiting loved ones and friends at Peninsula on Thursday said they had been concerned about the striking nurses and the level of care replacement nurses could give. But most said the care appeared good.

"It was a small concern, but not a big one, and the nurses were fine," said Vince Jones of Redwood City, whose wife had just given birth.

Felicity Oxendine of Brentwood, visiting a loved one with a "life-threatening injury," said the strike was "unnerving."

"It's odd that I have a loved one in surgery," she said, walking up to the hospital. "I hope it all goes well."

Nurses on the picket line continued to emphasize that the key issues are about safe staffing ratios, better patient-lifting and break policies for nurses, retirement security and health care benefits.

Wages, they say, are not an issue. Nurses with 20 years of experience earn between $50 and $56 per hour. New nurses earn about $40 per hour.

Most work three or four days a week. Several on the picket line said even that can be exhausting, given the pressures of lifting people and handling "life-and-death situations."

"We're lifting patients in and out of bed or putting them on the toilet all day," said Christine Picard, a 130-pound registered nurse from Half Moon Bay who works at Peninsula Medical Center. "I see nurses breaking down and getting injured."

Picard pointed out that an increasing number of patients are obese, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds. Lifting them causes back injuries for many nurses, she said. "There's not enough help for lifting."

But management officials maintain that the CNA has an agenda to grow membership. They insist CNA wants a green light to organize other Sutter Health hospitals without intrusion from Sutter — or any anti-union campaigns.

"We believe it's not about local issues, but CNA's agenda," said O'Clair. "We think nurses are getting that message, and that's why they're crossing the picket line."

But nurses walking the picket line outside the Burlingame hospital stressed that the strike was not about CNA growing membership.

"We're adults, and we don't have to strike because the CNA tells us," said Diana Koranteng of Millbrae, a nurse at Peninsula Medical Center. "This is about retirement, patient care, break relief and lift teams."

O'Clair and other Sutter officials believe they have offered the nurses a good contract, with a near-20 percent wage increase over four years and good benefits. The nurses say those health and retirement benefits are being eroded by inflation.

Lori Madsen of Burlingame, also a nurse at Peninsula, said the problem is Sutter.

"When the hospital was taken over by Sutter, it became a big business," said Madsen. "That's why we're having problems, and we can't settle this."


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