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Nurses Picket, Allege Loss of Lunch Breaks

Hoping to draw attention to their ongoing labor fight, about 50 nurses and union officials held an informational picket Wednesday in front of Columbia Los Robles Hospital.

The hospital’s 400 nurses, who fought health-care giant Columbia/HCA for more than two years to win representation from the Service Employees International Union, have been working for nearly a year to secure their first labor contract.

On Tuesday, union representatives filed a state labor complaint alleging that nurses are being forced to work through lunch without pay because the 1,200-employee hospital is badly understaffed.

The accusation was denied by Los Robles administrators, who maintain all employees receive time off for lunch and that staffing at the hospital is more than sufficient.

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“We’re hoping more nurses come out during their lunch break,” said union organizer Tanya Boone, talking to employees around noon outside the Janss Road facility while a folk singer strummed a labor song. “If they even get a lunch break. That’s one of the reasons we’re here.”

Though some progress has been made, contract negotiations have been largely fruitless, according to nurse Lesley Whitehouse, who has worked at the hospital 15 years. She said much of what nurses are asking for is simply a return of the benefits they had before the Nashville-based hospital chain took over Los Robles three years ago, or benefits that other Columbia employees receive, such as time-and-a-half pay on holidays and additional sick days.

“Now we’re discussing economic issues, the issues that affect their pocketbooks, and they’re not being cooperative,” said Whitehouse, an emergency room nurse who has spearheaded the unionizing effort. “When you’re tired, when you can’t get a break, how much can you give to patients?”

Hospital officials say they are still willing to discuss any and all of the points raised by the nurses--in negotiations. But they do not want to get into a public labor dispute, said spokeswoman Kris Carraway.

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