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Tentative Pact for Nurses

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Times Staff Writer

After more than a year of negotiations, Los Angeles County announced a tentative agreement Thursday with its nurses union that would raise salaries by 9% and provide bonuses to nurses willing to work at the troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Even with the raises, the county still would pay wages below those offered to nurses at private hospitals. It’s a disparity that has worsened an acute shortage of nurses at the county’s five public hospitals.

Currently, top scale for a county nurse is about $59,000. By comparison, the top of the scale is about $69,000 at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach and about $80,000 at UCLA Medical Center, according to the California Nurses Assn.

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A spokesman for the county’s Department of Health Services said the county’s hospital has 1,200 fewer nurses than it needs.

King/Drew, located south of Watts, has the biggest shortage. The hospital needs 806 full-time nurses, but has only 513, spokesman John Wallace said. To bridge the shortfall, the department has hired temporary traveling nurses, who now make up about 40% of the hospital’s nursing staff.

Medical accreditors have cited the nursing shortage as a key roadblock to recovery at King/Drew, where medical lapses have been linked to the deaths of several patients.

Under the contract, nurses at King/Drew would receive a monthly bonus of 10% on top of the raises that all other county nurses receive. But bonuses would be given only to nurses with clear records. Those who had received complaints against them or had negative job evaluations would not be eligible.

Only about 200 of the roughly 500 nurses at King/Drew would qualify for the bonus, said Joel Solis, a member of the bargaining committee for Service Employees International Union Local 660, which represents county nurses.

County officials have said the large number of contract nurses at King/Drew has made reforming the hospital difficult because they are at the facility only temporarily. King/Drew’s troubles have made recruiting permanent nurses a challenge.

“The workplace at MLK has not been a place where many nurses have wanted to go,” county Supervisor Mike Antonovich said. “To move forward, we need a bonus for good nurses at other hospitals to come to MLK to be part of the reform movement going on.”

Antonovich and Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke indicated Thursday that they would support the contract if it appeared before the board.

“I think it’s fair,” Burke said. “Obviously at the very top ranges, we may not be competing with some private hospitals, but we certainly are very close.”

In addition to the general 9% raise, the new contract also would include incentives for nurses to stay longer. A nurse who had worked for the county more than 15 years would see his or her salary increase by 14.5%. So, a longtime nurse would make about $68,000 a year. That nurse could earn about $74,000 a year working at King/Drew. The contract would expire in September 2006.

Officials with the nurses union said the membership would spend the next few weeks voting on the contract. They expected the nurses to approve it.

“I’d be surprised if it didn’t get accepted,” said Fred Huicochea, a registered nurse who is part of the bargaining committee.

Huicochea said that if the contract had not been hammered out, county nurses would have gotten a 2.5% increase at the beginning of next year, which is standard for county employees. Though the union originally had sought an increase of about 23%, it settled on at least 9%.

Huicochea said the rate “doesn’t offer up front enough to attract nurses to our system.” But most nurses will receive raises of from 10% to 12% because of the length of their service, he said.

Solis said some nurses were initially furious about the plan for higher pay for nurses at King/Drew.

Solis said that after he told them only about 200 nurses probably would get the bonus, that the county volunteered the bonus without any request from the union, and that King/Drew had the most problems with recruitment, the other nurses agreed.

But the bonus issue still slowed negotiations for about a week because Solis and others did not want it to apply only to those with a perfect record.

“We didn’t want the strings attached,” he said. “We wanted [the requirement] to be that you have a competent performance evaluation.” That, he said, was all that was required for a raise at other county hospitals.

Eventually, Solis said, the union agreed to the conditions when the language was toned down.

“It was hard,” said the county’s chief negotiator, Jim Adams, adding that 54 bargaining sessions were held over 14 months. “But, we ended up with an agreement we can hopefully live with and build on.”


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