Nearly 200 nurses walked off the job at Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch on Wednesday in a planned two-day strike over patient-nurse ratios and health and retirement benefits.
The Antioch protest was in concert with 5,000 nurses at 15 other Sutter Health hospitals throughout Northern California, and was the largest nurse's strike in the state in nearly a decade.
Carrying picket signs that read "Patients Before Profits" and "Retirement With Dignity," dozens of Sutter Delta nurses and their supporters lined the sidewalk in front of Antioch's Sutter Delta Medical Center.
Suzanne Fleeger, an ER nurse at Sutter Delta, said the strike was not about money, but was more concerned with the quality of care for both patients and staff.
"The biggest thing for us is nurse-patient ratio and competitive retirement and health benefits," said Fleeger. "I've come into the ER on a normal day where there should be nine nurses on duty, I've seen five. More commonly, there are seven.
"In regard to retirement, what we want is for Sutter to cover medical for us for life. Kaiser does that for their nurses. We are here day in and day out caring for patients; we should be able to expect we will be taken care of one day as well. The bottom line is that Sutter is not paying attention to us; instead they are pulling the plug on us."
The walkout came after nearly a year of contract negotiations between the California Nurses Association and Sutter Delta officials.
Sutter Delta's latest offer includes a $33,000 lifetime health coverage package for retirees, along with an immediate 15 percent wage increase for full-time nurses. The average nurses' salary begins at around $40 an hour.
State law requires a four-to-one patient-nurse ratio for regular care. For intensive care the ratio is two-to-one.
Dori Stevens, chief nurse executive for Sutter Delta, said earlier this week that she did not expect a reduction in patient care during the walkout. The hospital contracted with a staffing firm to bring in about 86 nurses to cover for the two days.
Stevens added that officials hoped the strike would result in a positive outcome for both sides, and that once the strike is over it will be business as usual.
"This is definitely not anything we want to see, we're all in a hard place right now," said Stevens. "But I do have to say that our health care benefits are very generous, and I can only reply that we maintain our state requirements for nurse-patient ratios. We have never had any citations. I just don't think the union was willing to work with us."
Not so, said Liz Jacobs, spokesperson for the CNA.
"This isn't about the money, it's about practicing your profession in a safe way and providing your nurses with the proper care they deserve when they retire," said Jacobs. "The Sutter system has been one of the most profitable hospital chains in the nation, with $575 million in profits last year. There is no reason for them to skimp."
The CNA represents approximately 7,000 registered nurses in 150 hospitals throughout the state.
Nurses back on job
Nurses at Sutter Delta Medical Center were back on the job Friday morning, despite a tension-filled two days of strikes. Nearly 300 nurses walked off the job Wednesday and Thursday to protest nurse-patient ratios and retirement and health care benefits.
The peaceful protest turned combative on Thursday when picketers at Sutter Delta stopped a busload of replacement nurses from entering the hospital parking lot. Antioch police arrived on the scene around 7 p.m. following a 911 call made from inside the bus by a nurse who said protesters were rocking the bus, shouting obscenities and shining flashlights into the windows. No arrests were made.
"It was a very unfortunate situation and quite frightening for the nurses on the bus," said Dori Stevens, chief nurse executive for Sutter Delta. "Emotions run high, I understand that, but I just wish something like this had not happened. It was very disappointing. We all respect the nurse's rights to be out there, but I certainly expect more professional behavior from professional nurses."
Nurses at the Antioch location were welcomed back Friday, although some of the 5,000 nurses throughout the 15 other Sutter Health hospitals in Northern California remain locked out until Monday morning.
There is no word yet on what the next step will be regarding contract negotiations, and no new talks have been scheduled. We were unable to contact nurse representatives for comment on the latest developments.