El Camino Hospital's nurses' union will be heading back to the bargaining table, after its membership voted to reject a tentative agreement with the hospital on a new three-year contract, according to an announcement made Friday, Oct. 7.
The vote against the contract is a sign that nurses remain unhappy with concessions on wages and pay cuts for working nights and weekends in the new contract.
The bargaining team for the Professional Resource for Nurses (PRN) union has been negotiating with hospital officials on a new contract since March, and both parties only recently came together on a tentative contract following a lengthy mediation process. Negotiations have stalled for months, nurses argue, because El Camino refused to budge on major issues related to hourly pay and health care benefits.
These complaints reached a tipping point last month, when hundreds of nurses picketed in front of the hospital's Mountain View campus.
Although details are scarce on what the hospital has offered in the past, PRN leadership has made crystal clear what they're seeking: a 12 percent bump in wages over the next three years, and no cuts to "differential" pay for nurses working weekends and late hours. PRN representatives also say El Camino Hospital has tried to cut health care benefits for nurses' dependents and spouses -- something that they believe would cost part-time nurses an extra $9,500 every year.
Nurses at the September picketing event questioned why these cuts would come at a time when the hospital has shown financial growth and stability, and has put away excess revenue in amounts ranging from $40 million and $70 million at the end of the fiscal year. In a letter to El Camino Hospital's nurses back in July, Chief Nursing Officer Cheryl Reinking countered the argument that the hospital was in for smooth sailing. She wrote that El Camino faces a volatile and changing health insurance market in the coming years, along with an "increasingly competitive" market in the South Bay and greater San Francisco Bay Area.
The tentative contract, announced on Sept. 24, includes a wage increase of 10 percent for all nurses over the next three years, retroactive to March 28, and preserves existing healthcare benefits for nurses working full- and part-time. Differential pay still takes a hit in the tentative agreement -- nurses would get paid 19 percent more for night shifts and 9 percent for weekends, down from 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Despite compromises from both sides, the nurses narrowly voted to reject the agreement. Christopher Platten, the attorney representing PRN, said they will be heading back to the bargaining table to review all of the negative aspects of the prior proposal for revision. The hope is that a new agreement can be brought back to union membership. There are plenty of options and flexibility to revise the contract, and Platten indicated they are no nearer to a worker strike.
Platten said that any number of concessions in the new contract could have been the poison pill for the nurses voting against the ratification, but he believes the failed vote could be chalked up to very bad timing on the part of El Camino Hospital's board of directors.
Right around the time both PRN and the hospital's negotiating team came together on the tentative agreement, the board of directors approved a CEO "incentive pay" bonus of $223,673 for hospital president and CEO Tomi Ryba. Just a month before, board members agreed not to renew Ryba's five-year contract at the end of October, but still gave her the incentive pay on top of her $800,300 salary. Platten said it's clear nurses are both "frustrated and angry" that the exiting CEO is awarded close to a quarter of a million dollars as a severance package while nurses are being asked to take a pay cut for night time and weekend work.
"The timing could not have been worse or more stupid, from the nurses' standpoint," Platten said. "The money from the reduced differentials ... can't be that much more than a quarter million dollars. It's just a stupid move."
Other troublesome parts of the contract include "enterprise work assignments," Platten said, where new or per diem nurses, or nurses who transfer to another department, would be forced to "float" between the hospital's two campuses, depending on where they are needed. It can be frustrating, he said, to have nurses drive long hours to get to the Mountain View hospital campus, only to find out they've been assigned over in Los Gatos.
Throughout the negotiation process, PRN representatives have argued that the hospital needs to invest in and support its nursing staff, which has shown a strong track record for high-quality performance and care. El Camino Hospital is one of only two hospitals in Santa Clara County to receive "magnet" status by the American Nursing Credentialing Center, and has received the designation multiple times. El Camino Hospital has also ranked one of the best hospitals in the area for reducing and preventing hospital-acquired illnesses and infections for patients.
"We are disappointed to learn that a vote by PRN members did not ratify this agreement," hospital officials said in response to the Voice's request for comment.
Hospital officials said in a statement Friday that they have asked the state-appointed neutral factfinder to resume his work on a formal report evaluating both parties' earlier proposals. "Our goal is, and always has been, to ensure that our nurses are well compensated for the outstanding patient care they provide, while maintaining fiscal responsibility in managing the hospital's resources," the statement said.
During the picketing event last month, Reinking told the Voice that the hospital historically has kept a strong relationship with its nursing staff, and that the nurses' union hasn't staged an informational picket like that in 20 years. She also defended the wages and differentials originally proposed by the hospital, and said they are consistent with other hospitals in the area.
The current three-year memorandum of understanding between El Camino Hospital and PRN, which expired earlier this year but has been extended multiple times, shows nurses have a salary range of $56.75 to $95.41 per hour. PRN representatives have argued that other hospitals, including Stanford Hospital, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, Kaiser and the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, either have a higher pay range or recently inked deals with each of their respective nurses unions for a 12 percent wage increases over three years.
Platten said the PRN bargaining team was aiming for a 12 percent salary increase over three years, and had to compromise with 10 percent, which could have played a role in nurses ultimately rejecting the tentative agreement. Even though emotions can run high at ratification meetings, and it appears there may be some bad blood over the hospital cutting checks to exiting executives, Platten said the nurses are keeping it cool.
"I've been doing collective bargaining for 40 years, and the series of meetings I had with the nurses was by far the most civilized, intelligent conversation I've had in ratification meetings," he said.