Nurses at 9 Bay Area hospitals go on day strike

John s. Marshall, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Thousands of nurses at nine San Francisco Bay area hospitals walked off the job on the morning of Christmas Eve — a day a hospital spokeswoman described as a time when "only the sickest of the sick are in the hospital."

Registered nurses and technicians at seven hospitals operated by Sutter Health and at two San Jose hospitals affiliated with the Hospital Corporation of America went on a one-day strike at 7 a.m. Monday, said hospital officials and representatives with the California Nurses Association.

The strike — the eighth by the union since September 2011 — comes as both sides remain at odds in a lingering dispute over health benefits, staffing levels and other issues.

As in the previous strikes, both sides traded barbs, disagreeing over the need for a strike, the number of nurses who refused to show up for work and the quality of care the replacement nurses would provide.

Hospital officials also criticized the union for calling the strike on Christmas Eve.

"We are deeply disappointed the union is taking nurses away from the bedside, particularly during the holiday season, when only are sickest patients are with us," said Carolyn Kemp, a spokeswoman for Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, one of the Sutter facilities hit by the strike.

Union spokeswoman Joanne Jung said the union called the strike because of the hospital's demands to eliminate health benefits for nurses who work fewer than 30 hours a week, disagreements over sick pay and other issues.

"They may be critical of us, but no nurse wants to strike," Jung said. "Management has given us no alternative."

About 90 percent of 5,000 nurses represented by CNA took part in the strike, the union said, while hospital officials said about only half of the union nurses refused to go to work.

As in previous strikes, the hospitals brought in replacement nurses to fill in for striking nurse, but unlike past strikes, returning nurses won't be "locked out" and will be able to return to work at Sutter's facilities when the one-day strike ends, Kemp said.

Nurses who try to return to work at the two Hospital Corporation of America hospitals won't be allowed to return to work for an additional four days after the strike ends because the facilities hired replacement nurses on five-day contracts, said Leslie Kelsay, a spokeswoman for Good Samaritan Hospital, one of the HCA hospitals where the nurses went on strike.

The walkout by the nurses joined a growing list of recent strikes by workers represented by other unions in California, including an eight-day walk-off by clerical workers at the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors that stalled billions of dollars of cargo and left container ships stranded off the California coast.

Also last month, a one-day strike by custodians and electrical workers shut down the Port of Oakland, workers at West Sacramento-based grocery chain Raley's walked off the job — the first strike in the company's 77-year-history — and nurses at Sonoma County's Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital walked off the job for three days.