Hundreds of nurses walked off their jobs at two East Bay hospitals and onto noisy picket lines Monday, while officials at Doctors Medical Center said medical services were running as usual with replacement workers.
California Nurses Association officials said all 450 nurses who work at the hospitals in Pinole and San Pablo had not reported to work and would continue striking indefinitely.
The nurses' contract expired Aug. 31, and negotiations broke down last week.
Nurses want Tenet Healthcare, which owns the hospitals, to set up a pension plan with guaranteed monthly payments and health care for retirees.
The company has offered to a modest boost in employee pay and increase the amount it matches employee contributions to a 401(k) retirement plan from 3 percent to 5 percent. Nurses at the hospitals now earn between $29,000 and $40, 000 a year.
But striking employees say 401(k) funds have not proved reliable in the current economic downturn, as most of them rise and fall with the stock market.
'We have nurses now who have retired and can't enjoy their retirement because all their money is tied up in health care," said Carol Sims, 60, who has worked at the medical center 41 years.
Medical center spokesman Michel Burleson said about 138 replacement nurses had been given orientation training Sunday night and had taken over for the strikers.
Burleson said all medical center services were operating, including the emergency room and surgical department. He declined to say how much the hospital was paying for the replacements.
"Things are going very well," said Burleson. "It's obviously very costly."
The medical center has no plans to put any new contract offers on the table,
Burleson said. He said the 401(k) retirement plan that the company had offered was better than the benefit plan sought by the union.
"I would say the ball is in their court," Burleson said. "We are eager to negotiate and get this resolved."
Tenet Healthcare also owns Redding Medical Center, which is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly performing unnecessary cardiac surgeries.
Several nurses walking picket lines Monday said the Redding investigation showed Tenet cares more about its bottom line than its patients.
"They're a business, and they're proud of it," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the nurses' union. "They have no respect for the nurses or the community."
Union officials said Tenet chief executive Jeffrey Barbakow, who earned $4. 5 million last year, receives a retirement benefit for twice the time he has worked for the company -- or $1.89 million a year if he stays on the job until 2004.
Nurses say refusing to give defined benefits to workers is an insult.
"It's about respect," said Charlene Arrington, a 28-year medical center employee who is in charge of the night shift critical care unit.
Arrington, 54, said she stood to collect just $250 a month under the company's current retirement plan.
"That, for a lifetime of caring?" asked Arrington. "Somehow I think I deserve more than that."
E-mail Jason B. Johnson at email@example.com