Negotiations are set to resume on Tuesday between union nurses and hospital officials at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.
Members of the California Nurses Assn. have vowed to strike if the hospital doesn't pull back on a demand that they pay more for health care. Tension has also grown between the two sides over complaints by the nurses that the hospital does not keep enough nurses working at any given time to meet state requirements for patient care.
Coronary care nurse Margie Keenan, who serves on the union's negotiating committee, said her biggest concern is that nurses are frequently not able to take breaks on their long shifts because state law requires that at least one nurse be on duty for every five patients – at all times.
Local news from across Southern California
At Long Beach Memorial, Keenan complained, so few nurses are on duty at any one time that there is frequently no one to cover for a nurse who needs to take a break. That can be dangerous for patient care, she said, because nurses frequently work 12-hour shifts, and they can be fatigued if they can't take a break.
“ I cannot go on a break unless I have someone to relieve me,” Keenan said. “That’s the law.”
Myra Gregorian, vice president for human resources at Long Beach Memorial, disputed the contention that the hospital was not scheduling enough nurses to take proper care of patients.
"We take patient care seriously, and we do not feel that it’s in any way compromised," Gregorian said.
While it's true that sometimes the demands of the job mean that a nurse will miss his or her meal break, the hospital always pays a form of overtime called a meal penalty when that happens.
"Meal periods are always offered," Gregorian said. "But we work in a hospital, in a setting where patient needs dictate the course of the day. The breaks and meal periods are always scheduled... and there's a process in place in which to someone was able to say, 'Hey, I wasn't able to take a break.'"
In addition to the issue of breaks, nurses have complained that the hospital is asking them to contribute too much for their own health care premiums. In the past, said Keenan, it was agreed that premiums were not to increase by more than 5% - and the hospital wants nurses to pay more than that.
Gregorian, of the hospital, confirmed that some nurses will have a higher increase in their health care premiums, up to a maximum of an $18 increase per pay period. But she said others will pay less, depending on the type of coverage that they choose.
Gregorian said the hospital was offering the nurses a 3% pay increase.
On Thursday, the 1900-member union, part of the California Nurses Association, voted overwhelmingly to authorize its leaders to call a strike if they feel negotiations are not succeeding. The union's contract with the hospital expired at the end of September.
If the union does decide to strike, it will give the hospital ten day's notice, Keenan said.