Hundreds of registered nurses walked off the job Thursday morning at seven East Bay hospitals affiliated with Sutter Health in a longstanding dispute over wages, benefits and service cutbacks.
With music blaring and passing cars honking in support, the striking nurses walked picket lines carrying signs reading, "RNs on Strike for Patient Good" and "Cutting Services, Cutting Standards."
"We're there during disasters, we're there every day, and I don't believe we should be asked to give up protections for our families when we devote our lives to taking care of others," said Elena Ballock, who has worked in the emergency department at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley for 35 years.
The hospitals brought in replacement nurses from around the country on five-day contracts and plan to lock out the striking employees until 7 a.m. Tuesday.
"Quality care will continue," said Carolyn Kemp, a spokeswoman for Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and Berkeley, which hired nearly 540 replacement nurses.
This marks the sixth time since September 2011 that the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United has gone on strike at Sutter facilities in the Bay Area.
In addition to Eden and three Alta Bates Summit facilities, the affected hospitals are Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch, San Leandro Hospital and Sutter Solano in Vallejo.
The union and Sutter have been embroiled in negotiations over a new contract for 18 months.
The union maintains that, although Sutter has made nearly $4.2 billion in profits since 2005, it is seeking numerous cutbacks in nurses' sick leave, health insurance and other benefits, working conditions and services that the union claims will hinder patient care.
Bob Auen estimated he would lose $36,000 in compensation annually under proposed wage and benefit cutbacks, which would include elimination or reduction of added pay for working weekend, 12-hour and holiday shifts and requiring him to pay 15 percent of health premiums that he now receives for free.
"It would be a hardship," said Auen, who has worked in Eden's intensive care unit for 23 years. "If nurses lose this fight, it's going to set us back in our standards 20 years."
Sutter counters that the nurses, who average about $136,000 annually for full-time work, are not willing to accept the type of benefit cuts and concessions that have become standard in other industries.
Kemp notes that nurses would continue to have a fully paid health benefit option and would be required to pay 15 percent of their premiums only if they chose a PPO plan.
"The economic reality is that we cannot sustain our current contract and continue to survive," Kemp said. "Medicare is reducing reimbursement. We have to change the way we operate."
Hayward resident Victor Arroyo had not heard about the strike when he and his wife arrived at Eden on Wednesday night. His wife delivered a boy at 6:15 a.m. Thursday, less than an hour before the strike began. While he was a little concerned, Arroyo said she was receiving good care Thursday from the replacement nurses.
"Bringing people from other states to work in a hospital? They don't know the history of the patient or where things are," Arroyo said, "but so far, it has been good."
Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.