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Temperatures Running High

As one bargaining group holds out on contract ratification, Maui nurses wonder who will call the shots for their future. “I don’t know if I can afford to stay here.”

May 5, 2011
Sarah Ruppenthal

Amid a clamor of cheers and blaring car horns, protesters—nurses from Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC), nursing students from University of Hawai‘i Maui College (UHMC) and their supporters—waved at passing cars holding signs emblazoned with slogans such as “No More Cuts,” “Some Cuts Don’t Heal” and “We Save You, You Save Us.”

According to protest organizers, the peaceful afternoon rallies were intended to generate awareness and gain community support during the latest round of contract talks among the bargaining units of the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association (HGEA) and the State of Hawai‘i.

Throughout a series of contract ratification meetings held statewide, a central concern emerged: Within the terms of the new 2011-13 contract (covering the period of July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2013) was a proposed 5 percent salary reduction—on top of an extension of pay cuts imposed just two years ago. In addition, contract terms included a reduction in benefits and the termination of step pay increases for experienced nurses.

Article Photos

More than 100 nurses lined Ka‘ahumanu Avenue on the afternoon of Monday, April 18, and again on Thursday, April 21, to protest terms of a state contract that came to a vote last week. At the conclusion of the Monday, April 25, meeting, only six of the seven bargaining units had agreed to ratify the terms of the 2011-13 contract. Now in a holding pattern, the State of Hawai‘i and HGEA must return to the bargaining table and attempt to reach a new agreement. Arrangements for the next round of contract talks have not been determined at press time, but it is likely that they will occur within the next two weeks.

Photo: Paul Janes-Brown

“I’m really worried,” admitted one UHMC nursing student, who requested her name be withheld. “If they keep making these cuts, I don’t know if I can afford to stay here, and I really don’t want to move away.”

This sentiment is shared by many of the registered nurses at MMMC, who contend they earn considerably less—in some cases, up to 50 percent—than their private sector counterparts. According to the HGEA Website, the key components of the two-year deal included imposing a 5 percent salary reduction, agreeing to nine days off each year, and “a 50/50 contribution from both government and union workers to cover healthcare costs” (HGEA noted that until now, the government has covered 60 percent of all healthcare costs). But ultimately, one group of nurses would reject the provisions of this contract offer—asking for something better to be placed on the bargaining table.

In a recent statement, HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira said, “These agreements were difficult for our members to accept, given that for the past two years, they have been doing ‘their share’ by enduring significant cuts in pay, as well as working in environments with reduced staffing and resources. It is clear that government employees have been sharing much of the load of balancing the state’s budget, and they are frustrated that little seems to have been done to ensure that our state budget will be solidly balanced with sufficient revenue to provide for government operations.”

For nursing professionals, the disparity between the public and private sectors is nothing new. However, as registered nurses brace themselves for yet another barrage of salary reductions, this financial chasm is widening at a seemingly exponential rate. And many believe that any further reductions in wages and benefits will yield some dangerous side effects.

Fearful for the health of their financial future, qualified nurses could be enticed by the better pay and benefits offered by private medical facilities. As a result, public hospitals such as MMMC will be left in a quandary—driving away more experienced nurses they cannot afford to pay, and scrambling to fill vacancies with newly trained nurses or expensive agency nurses. Whether it is believed that the contract talks are the symptom or the cause, one thing is for certain—this is one outcome no one wants to see.

“We support our nursing staff during this ratification process and respect what both sides are trying to accomplish,” said MMMC CEO Wesley Lo.

The hospital itself, which is overseen by the Hawai‘i Health Systems Corporation (HHSC) and employs about 1,800 nurses, was not directly involved with the master contract, he said. “However, while we can’t address this specifically, we are working with HHSC in looking at options and possible ways that we might be able to play some role in having a positive impact on what is ratified.”

On the morning of Monday, April 25, seven HGEA bargaining units sat down to negotiate the terms of a new, two-year state contract. But as the meeting concluded, only six of the seven bargaining units had agreed to ratify the terms of the 2011-13 contract.

Members of the seventh, Unit 9, opted to hold out for a better deal. Nearly 56 percent of the unit flatly rejected the state’s offer (392 accepted, 509 rejected).

Later that day, Perreira issued a statement to the media, responding to the bargaining unit members who refused to accept the contract. “This is a clear reflection of the fact that wages for registered nurses in the public hospital system are woefully behind the private sector, and our public hospitals—which provide the bulk of acute care services on the neighbor islands—is simply not in a competitive situation with private facilities,” he said. “It is our hope that as we return to the bargaining table, the State Administration and Hawai‘i Health Systems Corporation take a realistic approach to bargaining a fair agreement with their nurses, or risk losing more staff because of the pay gap they are enduring.”

Now in a holding pattern, the State of Hawai‘i and HGEA must return to the bargaining table and attempt to reach a new agreement. Arrangements for the next round of contract talks have not been determined at press time, but it is likely that they will occur within the next two weeks.

While the outcome hangs in the balance, state officials see the actions of the six bargaining units as a step in the right direction—at least, for advancing the state’s financial plan. In a statement issued on Tuesday, April 26, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said, “Without accusations and confrontation, the state and six of the seven bargaining units of the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association have come to an agreement that brings an end to Furlough Fridays and produces the savings needed to help balance the budget in our financial plan.”

 
 
 

 

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