Nurses, UC gain ground on pay
The university says it's willing to replace the merit system.
By Lisa Rapaport -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Friday, May 24, 2002
With a strike date looming at the University of California's teaching hospitals, UC resumed contract talks with the state's largest nurses union Thursday in hopes of replacing a pact that expired April 30.
If negotiations fail, the California Nurses Association plans a walkout Wednesday at five UC hospitals, including UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
After months of clashing over money, overtime shifts and staffing levels, the two sides inched closer to bridging their differences on salaries with a university proposal to replace its merit pay system with a graduated wage scale based on nurses' experience and years of service.
"That's huge," said union President Rose Ann DeMoro. "Merit pay has been a cornerstone of their compensation package that has been arbitrary and discriminatory and nurses have spoken out to get rid of it."
But the university remained staunchly opposed to a union proposal on staffing levels that would essentially require UC to use more registered nurses than California law requires.
A union-sponsored law signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 will set minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios for every hospital unit. Under proposed regulations not yet finalized, nurses would eventually treat no more than five patients apiece on general medical wards and even fewer patients on more specialized units.
"Systemwide, we already meet the staffing levels in the regulations proposed, but we don't want to agree to contract language when we don't know what the final regulations will look like," said UC spokesman Paul Schwartz.
For CNA, contract terms on staffing levels offer an opportunity to achieve through bargaining what the union could not accomplish in the Legislature.
Efforts by a rival, the Service Employees International Union, which represents both registered nurses (RNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), scuttled CNA attempts to pass a law that required hospitals to hire mainly RNs, who have more training and also make up the entire CNA membership.
Instead, the law allows hospitals to meet staffing levels by using a mix of RNs and LVNs.
But the law left it to the state Department of Health Services to set ratios and decide how to enforce them. Until these regulations are finalized later this year, state officials can tweak the numbers.
"The regulations are still floating, and you have a lobby by the SEIU and hospital groups to require fewer nurses and not use registered nurses," said CNA's DeMoro. "We can't count on the law. We need to get contracts that won't erode the number of registered nurses working in hospitals."
Union officials concede that UC hospitals have some of the best staffing levels in the state. DeMoro singled out UC Davis and said the hospital's largely all RN staff led to lower turnover rates and better patient outcomes.
That has led some in the industry to question whether the impending job action is really about staffing at UC hospitals.
"This is a union battle that has nothing to do with patient safety. It is about CNA, which only represents RNs, and SEIU that represents both RNs and LVNs," said Jan Emerson, of the California Healthcare Association, a hospital trade group.
With UC talks in progress late Thursday, CNA also made plans to picket at Catholic Healthcare West next week in an attempt to get mid-contract language on, among other things, registered nurse staffing levels.
Citing high turnover rates and increasing use of temporary workers, union leaders said nurses will picket 20 facilities next Thursday, including Mercy General Hospital and Methodist Hospital in Sacramento, Mercy Hospital of Folsom, and Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael.
At the same time, SEIU Thursday announced its success in organizing 560 technical workers at these four Sacramento-area hospitals following two previous votes when employees rejected union representation.
Like CNA, SEIU wants safe staffing levels, said Local 250 President Sal Roselli.
Last year, SEIU signed a partnership agreement with Kaiser Permanente that mandates even more nurses on some units than state law may require.
Now SEIU is in talks with the HMO to establish the right mix of RNs and LVNs to work in Kaiser hospitals, Roselli said.
With rival health care unions seeking contracts to protect their members' jobs and the hospital industry continuing to fight nurse staffing regulations, it's hard to tell what motivated CNA and UC to make ratios a sticking point in negotiations, said Joanne Spetz, with the Center for California Health Workforce Studies at UCSF.
"UC ratios are quite good," Spetz said. "From the UC side, they are already budgeted to meet the ratios law, so I'm not sure why they wouldn't agree to it in a contract. Then from the union side, they won't get many new positions out of this, so I'm not sure why they are making such a big deal of this."
The Bee's Lisa Rapaport can be reached at (916) 321-1005 or firstname.lastname@example.org