About 80 nurses picketed the Ventura County Medical Center on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to stop hospital officials from eliminating overtime pay for nurses who work 12-hour shifts.
The move could mean a 4% pay cut for the nurses.
The nurses say they are considering going on strike or calling in sick if hospital officials go ahead with plans next week to eliminate the overtime pay for about 115 of the hospital's 350 nurses.
A state mediator is scheduled to meet with hospital administrators and nurses Friday morning to try to work out the differences. The nurses plan to picket during their lunch hours again today.
Currently, nurses get time-and-a-half pay after eight hours a day. The stipend provides a bonus for nurses who work three 12-hour shifts a week.
Under the hospital's proposal, the nurses would lose their overtime but would receive an increase in their hourly wage from an average of $16.86 to $18.73. However, nurses now average $19.67 an hour when overtime is figured in.
"We are trying to make adjustments that make sure we are in line with all the other hospitals," said Pierre Durand, administrator of the medical center. "We feel our rates are excellent in today's market."
But Patricia Knight, president of the nurses chapter of the Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, said nurses depend on the overtime, which has been offered for several years, for mortgages, car payments and other major expenses.
Judy Gifford, a nurse in obstetrics, said the hospital's proposal is unfair.
"They gave us the overtime," she said, "and then just out of the blue they want to take it away."
Along the sidewalk outside the medical center, nurses carried placards urging administrators to leave their overtime pay alone. "No Pay Cuts for Nurses" was written on one sign. Another read: "Honk if You Support Fair Wages." Yet another read: "Cuts May Be a Life and Death Situation."
"Why should we have to work for less when elsewhere they make more money?" said Kathleen Worden, a nurse. "We're going to stand together on this."
Sharon Madonna, a nurse in obstetrics, added: "This is a slap in the face. We're the backbone of the hospital, and we're not just going to roll over."
The dispute between the nurses and the administration has been going on since Durand proposed several months ago that the overtime be eliminated.
Nurses first responded by wearing black clothing. Later, they took their plight to the County Board of Supervisors, which asked hospital officials to try to reach a compromise.
Several weeks ago, the nurses said they were encouraged when hospital officials announced that plans to eliminate the overtime would be put off pending further discussion.
But the nurses' hopes dwindled as the two sides reached an impasse, leading officials to ask for the help of a state mediator.
Ventura County Medical Center is the only hospital in the county that pays nurses time and a half for working more than eight hours a day, said Carol Dimse, the director of patient care services at Community Memorial Hospital of San Buenaventura, a private hospital.
Other hospitals, she said, operate on a fixed-rate scale that is not as costly as the overtime method.
"The basic problem is they are not paying the way other hospitals are," Dimse said. "Their salaries are very competitive and in some instances a little higher.
"It's understandable when you try to take something away from employees they are not happy about it," she said.