Amid an impasse in labor negotiations, registered nurses from UC Davis and throughout the University of California system rallied last week at hospitals and on campuses to protest contract proposals that they say would impede their ability to provide quality patient care and undermine their well-being in retirement.
Nurses have been working without a contract since late September when a two-month extension ran out, said Shirley Toy, a union representative at the UC Davis Medical Center. Roughly 14,000 RNs at the five major UC medical centers, 10 student health centers and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are represented by the California Nurses Association in these contract negotiations.
“We’ve been negotiating since before May. We’ve met together in approximately 30 different bargaining sessions,” Toy said. “The key sticking points are the many takeaways that UC is trying to obtain. ... Some things we’ve won in the past, UC Davis wants to take us backwards.”
In a prepared statement, UC officials said they are offering market-competitive wages, a quality health-care plan at reasonable rates and excellent retirement benefits. They declined comment beyond the statement.
“The university believes its proposal reflects the skills, contributions and dedication of its nurses,” the UC said in its statement. “We hope to come to an agreement with CNA as soon as possible to continue delivering excellent care and services to our patients.”
Among the nurses’ concerns, Toy said, are:
▪ Nurses now receive two weeks’ notice of scheduling changes. UC wants to reduce that to a day or two.
▪ Current scheduling challenges need to be addressed. Union officials said nurses charged with running units should not be assigned patients because they regularly are challenged to serve both individual patients and maintain the operations of their units. (UC administrators rejected that proposal.)
▪ RNs now get full pension at age 60; UC wants to increase that to age 65. Administrators want to give incoming nurses a choice of a pension or a 401K-style benefit plan.
▪ Currently staff nurses get preference over nurses hired on contingency when patient loads change at the last minute and administrators cancel some nursing shifts. UC leaders want the flexibility of choosing whether to call off staff or contingency nurses.
Toy, who regularly works as a charge nurse, said she’s interested in seeing that charge nurses are not assigned patients for care. It’s a matter of quality of care, she said, because managing the operation of a unit while ensuring patient needs are met is difficult. Yet, nurses charged with running a ward or unit must regularly pick up patients to relieve colleagues who must take breaks, she said.
“There’s a false thought that, when a nurse goes on break, she will plan it so that she won’t leave anything for the person covering to do,” Toy said. “But patients don’t cooperate with that belief. When they need you, they push their button.”
Inevitably, she said, while responding she also will receive a call to plan for a new patient coming from intensive care to her unit or, as one of a few nurses on duty trained to handle specialized equipment, she’ll be needed to help escort a patient from her unit to ICU.
In the prepared statement, UC officials said: “All UC medical centers meet and, in many cases, exceed California’s legally mandated nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. Each center has established protocols to ensure staffing issues and concerns are addressed proactively. ... Beyond this, we believe the proper venue for the discussion of nuanced, complex issues is at the negotiating table, not through the media.”
Rebecca Givan, a professor in Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said that even with mandated limits on the number of patients who can be assigned to nurses, concerns about staffing are being voiced by nurses nationally.
“Nurses everywhere are very concerned with staffing levels because they see the consequences of insufficient staffing,” Givan said. “That might mean patients have to wait longer before being able to go to the bathroom, which can actually have medical consequences, not just discomfort. ...We know from a great deal of research that patient outcomes are better when there are higher nurse staffing levels.”
Givan said that many nurses find making such last-minute changes in schedule difficult because they serve as caretakers for either their children or relatives. A last-minute change, she said, may force them to make arrangements that may not be ideal for their families and that may affect their focus at work.
Toy said she also hopes to see UC add to the number of part-time positions available to employees. UC has been encouraging nurses to return to school to get master’s or even doctoral degrees, she said, but that is hard to do while maintaining a full-time schedule. Toy said she and other nurses also have opted for a part-time schedule because they have had to care for children or an elderly parent.