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Nurses at Alta Bates in Berkeley and Other Hospitals Told to Stay Away Until Thursday

By Sara Gaiser (BCN)
Friday September 23, 2011 - 04:05:00 PM

A nursing strike at Bay Area hospitals is over today, but participating nurses at Sutter hospitals and Children's Hospital in Oakland have been told they cannot report back to work before Tuesday, officials said today. 

The California Nurses Association is calling the action by the hospitals a punitive lockout, but hospital officials denied the charge, saying they had to sign five-day contracts with nursing staffing companies that provided temporary nurses for the strike. 

Thursday's one-day strike involved an estimated 23,000 nurses at Sutter Health hospitals, Children's Hospital in Oakland and Kaiser Permanente. Contract negotiations are in progress at many of the affected hospitals, including those in the Sutter chain, but Kaiser nurses went out on strike in sympathy. 

Today, Kaiser nurses are back at work, but Sutter and Children's Hospital say they will continue to use temporary staff through Tuesday, when contracts with staffing companies expire. Erin Goldsmith, a spokeswoman at Children's Hospital, said the union knew in advance that this would be the case. 

"It's not a lockout, a lockout means that no members of a union are allowed into the hospital," Goldsmith said. "Nurses that chose to cross the picket lines are allowed into the hospital." 

"We had to contract with our nurse replacement agency for a total of five days," Goldsmith added. "We had to give them five days for the replacement nurses to provide a good incentive for them to come." 

Of the approximately 700 nurses at Children's Hospital, around 125 crossed the picket line to work during the strike, Goldsmith said. The remaining 575 nurses will not be able to work until Tuesday, although many may not have been scheduled to work before then anyway. The hospital has hired around 120 contract nurses. 

Union spokesman Charles Idelson called the claim that the hospitals had to contract for five days "ludicrous," and pointed to the fact that Kaiser was able to return the nurses to work after just one day. 

Idelson said the willingness of the hospitals to spend large amounts of money on contract nurses belied their claims in contract negotiations that they needed to save money. 

"It's obviously an unwarranted and unnecessary lockout," he said. "It certainly reflects the mentality of Sutter and Children's. It's indicative of the way Sutter has treated their communities and their employees and patients for years." 

At Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, nearly 40 percent of the hospital's 1800 nurses chose to cross the picket lines, hospital spokeswoman Carolyn Kemp said. The hospital has contracted with 500 temporary nurses through Tuesday. 

"We didn't choose for [nurses] to not come in to care for their patients, so we had to do whatever we can to care for our patients," Kemp said. "We have excellent nurses on a regular basis here and we compensate them with excellent compensation and benefits, so I think the whole thing is unfortunate. We'll welcome them back on Tuesday." 

Unions have said the hospitals are seeking to roll back RN rights and limit nurses' input regarding patient care, in addition to cutting benefits. 

Sutter hospitals have countered by noting that nurses in the chain are "among the highest compensated in the country," with the average nurse there earning a $136,000 salary.