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Sacred Heart nurses picket over breaks, benefits

Tue., Feb. 2, 2010, 5:49 p.m.

Informational protest does not constitute strike

Nurses are accusing Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center of pushing unfair and unsafe new workplace rules that would curtail rest breaks and trim staffing levels.

The hospital’s 1,600 registered nurses, who are in contract negotiations with the hospital, on Tuesday held a boisterous informational picket outside that collected honks and cheers from supportive motorists driving past.

The picket was not a strike and nurses protested on their own time, often before and after shifts.

The nurses’ union, represented by the Washington State Nursing Association, said the hospital is threatening patient safety by leaving nurses already working long shifts – up to 12 hours – exhausted and stressed.

At issue is what constitutes a break. Nurses say they need the flexibility to use the restroom and have a drink of water without it constituting a formal 10-minute break. They are being penalized for taking care of themselves, said nurses Kristie Dimak and Kathy Ormsby.

Patrick Clarry, the hospital’s vice president of human resources, said the hospital is not trying to strip rest breaks from employees, but instead is attempting to strike a balance that ensures the best use of peoples’ time.

The nurse’s labor contract expired Dec. 31. The sides have engaged in seven negotiating sessions and are scheduled to meet with a mediator Wednesday.

Nurses also are upset with the hospital’s proposal to change their retirement benefits, essentially ending contributions to a traditional pension plan that gives a guaranteed payment and replacing it with a riskier retirement plan exposed to stock market gyrations.

Such changes have become commonplace across corporate America as traditional pensions get phased out in favor of plans such as a 401(k). “We don’t like it one bit,” said Camille Sturdivant-Daly. She has been at Sacred Heart for 30 years and said the changes would erase the prime pension-earning years for those like her with long service to the hospital. “They’re trying to change the rules on us at the end of the game.”

Clarry said Providence would continue to give the same amount of money to employees for their retirements, but shift the opportunity and risk to the employees.

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