While the iron’s hot
Nurses take to the streets to picket and strike
Nurses’ strikes against Tenet Health hospitals in Florida, California and Arizona on Friday Sept. 20 made national news. But nurses at two local hospitals also took to the streets to protest last week—with an informational picket about patient care issues at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno and a one-day strike protesting nurses’ health care benefits at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe.
On the morning of Sept. 20 in South Lake Tahoe, the sounds of chanting over megaphones competed with honking from passing cars as nurses from Barton Memorial Hospital took to the streets along Highway 50 to protest the health care benefits offered to them by their employer. Even the police and fire department honked in support and flashed their lights as nurses, some with their children in tow, chanted “Barton, Barton, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.”
“We’re striking today because our nurses are paying very high rates for our insurance premiums, our copays, our out-of-pocket expenses,” said Beth Dameral.
Dameral has been a nurse at Barton for 23 years and has been a member of the bargaining team since the hospital’s nurses voted to unionize with California Nurses Association (CNA) in November 2017.
“We are looking for Barton to bring back a reasonable health care plan,” Dameral said. “We gave them a health care proposal 15 months ago, in June of 2018—and there’s been silence from their side of the table related to health care.”
The Sept. 20 strike marked the second this year for Barton nurses, who also held a one-day strike in May.
When asked for an interview, Barton representatives chose to respond instead with a written response in which Mindi Befu, director of marketing, public relations and patient experience wrote: “Since the last strike in May, we have met eight times with the union—and have reached a total of 29 tentative agreements. On August 27, Barton presented a fair and thoughtful counter proposal to the union’s wage proposal, which would result in an average 10 percent wage increase for bargaining unit nurses over three years.”
The statement also indicated that Barton does have a health care package proposal, but due to an unanticipated change in health care brokers, its presentation to the union has been delayed until October. In the meantime, according to the statement, “Barton employees continue to be offered three health care benefit plans where the most popular of plans costs between $20-$60 per paycheck depending on family size.”
However, it’s not just the cost of health care that nurses oppose. According to a press release from CNA, more than 20 percent of nurses who work at Barton “are in collections or Barton is deducting exorbitant amounts from their paychecks for care they or their family members received at the hospital.”
“That’s quite disturbing, if you ask me—that over 20 percent of the nurses in our bargaining unit are in collections for care they’ve received at the hospital at which we work, for themselves or for their family members,” said Kelli Teteak, who’s worked at Barton for 20 years and is another member of the nurses’ bargaining team. “How is that right? It’s not. Barton tries to claim that the insurance is affordable, but what they’re not disclosing is the huge deductibles we have to pay and the max out-of-pocket expenses. Over $10,000 is what you can be hit with, if you have substantial medical bills. We’ve had several nurses that have hit that, probably four nurses that have hit the max out-of-pocket. … So we need to fight to get that changed.”
“And it’s not only the collections,” added 13-year nurse and bargaining team member Romie Navarro. “Barton also has a—they call it a zero percent finance plan for any of your bills that you have. So I know myself, I have three of those going at 50 dollars a paycheck … so it’s about 150 a paycheck that I’m paying off. I had some sleep studies that had to be done for my sleep apnea. They were $5,000 apiece out-of-pocket for me, so it was like 10-G in a couple of months. I’m still paying that for the next five years or so.”
For nurses who chose to strike, paying this month’s bills may be more difficult. For engaging in the one-day strike, nurses were forced to take an additional four days off without pay.
“They’re locking us out to punish us,” Navarro said. “That’s kind of their thing, to lock us out for four days, so we can’t get back in to make money.”
“They say it’s part of the replacement nurses’ contracts, but we see it as a punitive action,” Teteak added. “We can’t go back to work until Wednesday morning at 7:30.”
In response to the strike, Barton also canceled a scheduled Sept. 25 negotiation date and has requested dates in October instead.
Barton’s statement said hospital administration “is eager to return to the bargaining table to resolve this outstanding contract,” but added that “CNA has arranged to have nurses from at least 12 hospitals in three states walk out on September 20, so this is clearly more about CNA’s national agenda than about resolving a contract for Barton’s nurses.”
Nurses at Saint Mary’s, who are also unionized through CNA, weren’t striking on Wednesday Sept. 18. They were holding an informational picket to raise awareness of what they consider patient care concerns at the hospital.
“It was to bring awareness to the fact that we are fighting for our nurse-to-patient ratios to be guaranteed in the contract—and that we have those ratios guaranteed throughout the day, during breaks and lunches and all of that,” said Darrella Lydell, a member of bargaining team for Saint Mary’s and 18-year employee of the hospital. “We want our patients cared for.”
But after the picket, Lydell said, the hospital’s legal counsel walked out of a Sept. 20 meeting to catch a plane having made no progress in negotiations with the bargaining team. On Sept. 24 Lydell was informed that the hospital had also chosen to cancel bargaining dates scheduled for Sept. 25 and 26.
“It’s the corporate management we’re having trouble with,” Lydell said, referring to Prime Healthcare, which acquired Saint Mary’s several years ago. “Local management has been great. I wouldn’t say they’re supportive. They’re not out there standing in the picket line with us, but they’ve tried to get a lot of other benefits that corporate just said no to.”
According to Lydell, if negotiations don’t result in an agreement in the near future, Saint Mary’s nurses may soon notify the hospital of their intent to proceed with their own one-day strike.