Striking Nurses Stare Down Pay Cuts, Loss Of Health Coverage


By Fenit Nirappil & Dan Keating

Two major Northern California hospital systems have further antagonized nurses' labor groups by withholding wages from any worker who participates in strike activities during a scheduled shift. One of the systems, Stanford Health Care, is also threatening to cease health coverage for striking nurses as well.

Labor groups called the hospital systems' actions "retaliatory," "union-busting," "immoral," and "cruel."

The issue exploded this week after Sacramento-area based Sutter Health informed an estimated 8,000 nurses, who on Monday participated in a one-day strike at 17 of its facilities, that they would be locked out for the rest of the week.

Nurses were told their pay would be docked for the remaining duration of the week because the system had to guarantee a minimum number of days' pay for each replacement worker it had to hire in their place.

"When the union threatens a strike, we must make plans that our patients, teams and communities can rely on," Gary Zavoral, a spokesperson for Sutter Health, said via email. "Part of that planning is securing staff to replace nurses who have chosen to strike, and those replacement contracts provide the assurance of five days of guaranteed staffing amid the uncertainty of a widespread work stoppage."

"Union leaders were made aware of this in advance, as were those employees who chose to strike," he continued. "As always, our top priority remains safe, high-quality patient care, and nurses may be reinstated sooner based on operational and patient care needs."

Sutter is the 34th largest health system in the country, with 22 hospitals serving 19 California counties.

A spokesperson for the California Nurses Association, which represents Sutter's nurses, called the hospital system's action "retaliatory" and "a completely unnecessary and vindictive anti-union move, since we know from past one-day strikes that other hospital systems do not lock out their nurses for exercising their labor voice and rights."

'Weaponizing' Health Benefits

Likewise, Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, both in Palo Alto, informed some 5,000 nurses last weekend that their planned strike, set to start April 25, would mean not only the loss of pay during the time those nurses don't report for work, but the loss of their health coverage starting May 1 as well, should the strike go on through the end of the month.

Colleen Borges, president of the union representing those Stanford nurses, Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement (CRONA), characterized the Stanford threat as "weaponizing our medical benefits," and an action that is not just cruel, but immoral, she said in a statement.

"Health benefits should not be used against workers, especially against the very health care professionals who have made Stanford a world-class health system," said Borges, a pediatric oncology nurse.

The union said that 93% of the nurses who are eligible to vote at Stanford hospitals voted April 8 to authorize a strike.

Nick Barnes-Batista, a spokesman for CRONA, called the hospital system's threat "a union-busting attack." It will force nurses to go through the paperwork and expense of signing up for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage for that month.

"This was not a decision the hospitals had to make," he said.

In a statement, Stanford executives said the health plan curtailment policy was made clear in CRONA's Contingency Manual, which reads: "If a strike lasts beyond the end of the month in which it begins and the hospitals discontinue medical coverage, you will have the option to pay for continued coverage."

Stanford's statement called the health benefits policy "standard practice" that "is not unique to our hospitals and applies to any of our employees on unpaid status, including those who leave the hospital to transition to another job."

It was issued by Dale E. Beatty, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, chief nurse executive and vice president of patient care services at Stanford Health Care, and Jesus Cepero, PhD, RN, senior vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer at Stanford Children's Health.

Both nurses unions say they're negotiating for safer staffing and more competitive wages. Stanford nurses want better mental health support and more time for rest and recovery after working during the tough conditions of the pandemic.

Asked for a comment, Jan Emerson Shea of the California Hospital Association (CHA), declined, saying only that "CHA focuses on public policy matters."


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