Dozens of nurses hit the pavement with colorful signs early Tuesday morning, kicking off an all-day demonstration outside El Camino Hospital over what they call unjustifiable cuts and lackluster wages at a time when the hospital's budget is booming.
Nurses marching along Grant Road, many just finishing a lengthy night shift, are braving the heat after the hospital's leadership proposed a new three-year contract that they describe as unacceptable. The contract offers wage increases that fall short of the rising cost of living while simultaneously chipping away at compensation rates that nurses have long fought to preserve, they said.
Union leaders announced last week that they have reached an impasse with the hospital following mediated negotiations.
"We don't deserve any 'take aways' in our contract," said Nina Rovai, a 19-year nurse working at the Mountain View campus. She said El Camino's nurses have faced cuts in every contract negotiation since 2010, regardless of the economy and the hospital's budget.
The proposed three-year contract with the Professional Resource for Nurses (PRN), which represents 1,269 nurses across the Mountain View and Los Gatos campuses, provides a 3% raise each year, falling short of the 10% wage increases over the term of the contract that PRN sought. The hospital's offer also comes with proposed pay cuts to per diem nurses and nurses working night shift, who would drop from earning 20% in extra pay to 18%.
Nurses working at the hospital for at least 30 years would receive a $1,000 "longevity" bonus as part of the agreement, but nurses say that hardly makes up for the fact that the hospital's pay scale for longevity essentially caps out at 20 years.
El Camino's CEO Dan Woods released a statement Tuesday describing the "careful" approach to PRN contract negotiations, adding that the hospital has met with the union 15 times in an effort to find a resolution in the best interest of all parties, including patients. Woods said he believes a compromise can be reached.
"We remain focused on a fair bargaining process as we continue negotiations. We remain confident that a mutually acceptable agreement will be reached soon so our nurses may move forward and can continue to focus on caring for our patients," Woods said.
No individual setback or compromise in the proposed contract is necessarily a deal-breaker, said PRN president Catherine Walke. But taken altogether, the agreement simply doesn't go far enough to support nurses when the hospital is asking them to do more with less, and cutting nursing assistants and "break nurses" -- assigned to cover for nurses while they are on break -- to save money.
"I want the nurses to be valued and appreciated and respected, and one of the ways is compensation," Walke said. "But it's also making sure that they have colleagues who can support them."
For many of the protesting nurses, the proposed cuts to compensation make little sense as the hospital posts record-breaking profits. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the nonprofit hospital reported over $197 million in so-called "net income," and is poised to have another banner year with $142 million in excess revenue after expenses at the end of the 2018-19 year. The hospital has enough cash on hand to keep the hospital running for well over a year, according to its most recent financial reports.
Nurses are the backbone of the hospital's workforce and an integral part of patient quality, said one protester, who declined to be named. El Camino is consistently awarded the Magnet designation by the American Nurses Credentialing Center because of the consistent high-quality work by PRN employees, and yet the hospital is seeking to slash compensation in the face of economic prosperity, she said.
"What they're trying to do is give us a raise but take away in other places," she said. "We're at a loss wondering where we're hurting (financially)."
Throughout the contract negotiation, which is now headed into a fact-finding process, Walke said hospital representatives have fought to bring down labor costs to what it calls "in market." In other words, if compensation rates and costs exceed what other hospitals are paying, there's pressure to modify the contract to bring things like night shift pay down to what might be offered at another hospital, like Kaiser.
But it never goes the other way, she said. If the hospital is spending less for nurses who have worked at El Camino for 25 years, that never gets factored into the discussion. The hospital also saves millions of dollars by forcing nurses to take unpaid days when they aren't needed.
"El Camino Hospital always wants to be 'in market' for their work force but they seem to pick and choose," Walke said.
Weathering the compromises in 2010 when the hospital faced deficit spending hurt, but at least it was understandable, Rovai said. And while some of those cuts were eventually rolled back, nurses have to face a new onslaught of compromises every three years. The nurses know the hospital is doing very well financially, making it all the more upsetting.
"They have given some of the things back but it's really frustrating to know what you know and they still say, 'Well, we need to make cuts,'" she said.