Hospital giant fails in bid to swipe nurses' sick days

After nine strikes, nurses won the right to keep taking paid sick days rather than spreading disease to patients

Published October 14, 2013 5:24PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>aetb</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(aetb via iStock)

One of the country's largest and most profitable hospital chains has been defeated in its effort to take away its nurses' sick days, according to the union that mounted nine strikes there over the past two years.

“The nurses would’ve come to work sick, and the patients’ health would’ve declined,” said California Nurses Association Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro. “Because the nurses would be exposing current patients to the past patients’ illnesses.” While nurses “take the risk of being around very sick people,” DeMoro told Salon, they “are not super-women.”

According to CNA, eliminating paid sick days was one of nearly 200 concessions sought by California healthcare giant Sutter Health, in negotiations over union contracts covering 3,000 nurses and hundreds of other employees at central California hospitals. Others included eliminating health coverage for nurses who work less than 30 hours a week, and reducing -- to 6 hours -- nurses' minimum time off between shifts. The union says it defeated virtually all of the concessions in new contracts, which were approved by members in votes that ended last week. CNA notes that Sutter financial statements show more than $4 billion in profit since 2005.

Sutter spokesperson Carolyn Kemp emailed that the company was “very pleased with the resolution,” which it called “a true compromise” after “both sides worked very hard to reach agreement.” She told Salon, “We look forward to moving ahead, with a unified staff, working together in the best interests of our patients.”

“Taking healthcare away from healthcare workers is a little ludicrous,” DeMoro told Salon, “and that’s what the employer was trying to do.” After nine strikes, she said, it appeared that “somebody somewhere said knock it off,” and Sutter mounted “a strategic retreat.” The union was gearing up for a potential tenth strike when it reached the deal.

According to CNA, the deal includes an agreement by Sutter to rescind disciplinary actions against nurses that the union had alleged amounted to retaliation for going on strike. A National Labor Relations Board investigation found in July that Sutter had illegally tried to impose some of its proposals, including ending paid sick days, on some workers before a deal was reached.

As I've reported, the issue of sick leave has reached new prominence in recent years as a string of state and city governments have debated or passed measures requiring employers to provide a minimum number of paid days each year for workers to call off sick. Jersey City, New Jersey, passed a bill last month; sponsors plan to introduce one in Newark next week.

DeMoro argued that the new contracts at Sutter vindicated CNA’s rejection of the “labor-management partnerships” pursued by other unions. “You cannot be on the side of the corporations and of the workers too,” she told Salon. Instead, “you stand with the public, and the public will stand with you.” (In January, CNA entered a formal affiliation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which is locked in a bitter multi-year battle with the much larger Service Employees International Union over which union should represent hospital workers and what kind of relationship with management is appropriate.)

DeMoro said that Sutter nurses in the past hadn’t been “the core activists” in CNA, “and the employer misread that and thought that, because of that, they could come in with sweeping takeaways and the nurses would not fight. They turned those nurses into some of the best activists in the organization.”

By Josh Eidelson

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