Nurses belonging to's newest union will return to the bargaining table Friday to ask for higher wages and other changes to their first labor contract.
At the heart of their concerns is a proposal that would allow the hospital to count licensed vocational nurses as part of the California's mandated nurse-to-patient ratio.
They picketed outside the Santa Monica campus Feb. 16 in a move designed to "get management's attention and to get them to focus on the issues," said Gerry Daley, of the California Nurses Association, and chief negotiator for the nurses.
The nurses are members of the CNA, the hospital's newest union. It was recognized June 6 and represents about 500 nurses, according to Daley.
In a statement, hospital officials described the nurses' informational picketing as "unfortunate."
They did not respond to Patch's questions about the nurse-to-patient ratio or the wage issue, but did address union complaints that hospital management has been stalling.
"We believe that the pace of the negotiations has been what would be expected in these circumstances. It is not any different from many other first contract negotiations between hospitals and unions," the statement reads.
St. John's is the only hospital in the state attempting to count LVNs in their nursing ratios, according to Daley.
According to registered nurse Chris Busch, a 20 year employee at St. John's, nurse-to-patient ratios vary by hospital unit, with critical care units requiring one RN for every two patients. In the emergency department, one RN is required for every four patients.
Because LVNs do not have as much training as registered nurses, RNs generally oversee what LVNs do. If the hospital counts LVNs, then if an RN has five patients under her or his care and an LVN has five, then the RN essentially has to oversee the care of 10 patients, Busch said.
The nurses are also unhappy about what they consider low wages.
Daley said that nurses with five years of experience at St. John's are paid between $30 and $40 an hour (the variation in pay rates is another issue the union is seeking to rectify), which, on the average, is 20 percent lower than other hospitals in Southern California.
"It seems like our wages are below the community standard," Busch said. "We want to get our wages up to at least what the community standard is."
Busch estimated that she could get between $12 and $14 an hour more by working at another hospital. The union is seeking to have the hospital pay nurses at her level approximately $58 an hour.
Both Busch and Daley pointed to what they said is high turnover rate for nurses at St. John's. By their estimates, approximately 53 percent of the nurses at the hospital have been there five years or less. Daley said that compares to 43 percent of nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital and 36 percent of nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, both in downtown Los Angeles.
"Truthfully? There's greener pastures other places," Busch said.
Daley said that the hospital has been offered numerous dates for talks and has met with the union "12 or 13" times. A second set of talks after Friday is scheduled for March 1.
"It's not unusual for an employer to try to stall," Daley said, adding that informational picketing is one way to force an employer to come to the bargaining table.
"It was a very respectful event for us," Busch said. "People were walking along the sidewalk saying, 'We support you.'"
Daley said that two days before the picketing, hospital negotiators agreed to discuss the wage issue, whereas prior to the announcement of the event, they had refused.
No patient services were interrupted by the picketing and Daley said that there will probably be future similar activities, although nothing is currently scheduled.
Daley said he and the other members of the negotiating team have been working with the hospital since Sept. 8.
"This is the first nursing union," said Busch, who works in the pre-operative unit. "We tried 10, maybe 13 years ago, and it did not get voted in."
Busch said she wasn't sure why this latest effort to unionize succeeded where past efforts failed, but speculated that it was because hospital management made several promises during the earlier effort, including to raise pay and give the nurses more say in hospital affairs, if the nurses did not unionize.
"The increased wages didn't show and the power that we were promised didn't show up," Busch said.