Nurses fume over benefits cuts

The nurses called in the big guns.

Not long after Enloe Medical Center announced reductions in its employee benefit packages in response to anticipated financial losses, the president and vice-president of the statewide union representing Enloe’s registered nurses came to town for a press conference.

Where exactly did the money go?, the executives of the California Nurses Association asked of Enloe. Open the hospital’s books, they challenged. Prove your contention that economic downturns and lower reimbursements are the real reasons for the cutbacks.

The CNA, which has represented RNs since being voted in following a bitter campaign last year, believes Enloe has a more nefarious goal in mind—busting the union.

“I do believe [the cutbacks are] an attempt at putting a strain on the nurses in the union,” CNA President Kay McVay said at the June 13 press conference held across the street from the hospital. McVay’s presence, plus that of the CNA vice president, sent a signal that what happened to Enloe’s nurses was a big deal statewide.

Enloe announced in late May that it would cut the coverage and increase the cost of health care insurance for its RNs, as well as other employees. Full-time nurses previously had to pay nothing but will now be required to pay $25 a month and must reach a higher deductible before benefits kick in. Part-time nurses will go from paying $60 a month to $85. Rates and deductibles for families also went up considerably.

In addition, long-time employees were told that their banked sick leave and vacation time would be bought out, with half going into their retirement funds. The hospital has also instituted a new policy requiring that employees be sent home when business is slow, forcing them to use their paid time off (merged sick and vacation leave) to maintain their incomes.

Inside the hospital, say many nurses, management is subtly blaming them for the changes, suggesting that if the union hadn’t come in and negotiated higher wages for RNs, the hospital wouldn’t have to take such drastic actions.

It’s simply not true that the changes are an attempt to crush the union, responded Ann Prater, Enloe’s public relations director. She cited the hospital’s financial difficulties in the last year, plus rising health care costs nationwide, as the cause of the increases and other changes. Before the health insurance rate hikes, Prater said, benefits were costing $9.5 million a year. The nonprofit pays roughly $5,400 a year in coverage for each employee.

“Most employers do charge for benefits,” Prater said.

Also, she said that the changes affect every employee in the hospital, not just the nurses. “Enloe is experiencing real pain,” Prater said. “We’re treading toward a $2 million loss this year.”

The CNA isn’t buying it and wonders why, if Enloe is so financially strapped, it has built a multimillion-dollar cancer care center and last year contracted with a labor relations firm, the Burke Group, to combat the nurses’ union at what McVay called an “exorbitant” price.

Prater pleaded ignorance, saying she knew nothing about the Burke Group because she was hired after the union was voted in, adding that she hasn’t “spent one penny” on any such consultants since then. And the cancer center is part of providing quality health care to the community.

McVay warned that if the trend toward paying more for less continues, the community would see an “exodus” of nurses from the area.

"They want to function as nurses," McVay said. "They want to be treated with respect."