Spokeswomen from ECH and the union said the agreement is a clear sign that relations between hospital administrators and the union, Professional Resource for Nurses, have improved greatly since the summer of 2010, when drastic cutbacks to benefits and pay were imposed and many nurses feared losing their jobs.
"It says something," said Pat Briggs, president of PRN. "Despite the cuts and despite the tensions of health care, we have been able to talk effectively."
Chris Ernst, an ECH representative, agreed with Briggs' assessment of relations between the nurses' union and the hospital. "I think anytime you come to an agreement where everyone is in a place where they are pleased, I think that bodes well for all."
In a statement issued by the hospital, CEO Tomi Ryba said: "We are pleased to have reached an agreement with PRN and respect their spirit of collaboration throughout this process."
In 2010, all hospital employees were asked to give up some benefits. The nurses' union fought the reductions, but ultimately they were forced to accept the hospital's "last, best and final offer." According to Ernst, ECH officials had no choice but to impose the cuts, as the hospital was in uncertain financial waters.
Briggs thinks hospital officials went further than they needed to. "They really cut the expenses to the bone, in my opinion," she said.
After making the cuts, the hospital also adopted new efficiency practices, which, according to Ernst, have worked. "We've been doing great work in our efficiency and hitting our benchmarks," she said. "We had a really good year last year, and we want to continue to look at better ways to take care of our employees, as they are our No. 1 asset."
In 2010, the hospital began requiring all employees to contribute to the premium payments for all health plans, Briggs said. Under the new agreement, all eligible registered nurses working half-time or more will no longer be required to contribute to insurance premiums for the most basic health care package.
The hospital will contribute more to pre-tax retirement accounts for nurses that have been working at El Camino for a 15 years or more, and nurses will be able to accrue as many as 400 hours of paid time off — up from 350 hours under the previous contract, according to Briggs.
The PRN president said union members are generally happy with the new contract. However, the union only agreed to a single year under these terms.
"We think (the contract) demonstrates the importance of the nurses to the organization," she said, but added: "There is still room for improvement."
The nurses will go back to the bargaining table in March 2013.