A union representing 750 registered nurses at Children's Hospital Oakland has announced it plans to strike for five days beginning next week.

The hospital will bring in temporary nurses and remain open during the walkout, which is scheduled to start at 7 a.m. Thursday and end at 7 a.m. May 10.

"It's unfortunate, but we are resilient, we are preparing, and we will take care of these kids," said Cynthia Chiarappa, vice president of communications for the hospital.

Representatives of California Nurses Association-National Nurses United have tried to negotiate a new contract for nearly a year. Their previous agreement expired in July.

"We want to make the point to the employer that nurses are serious and that this is an unacceptable contract proposal," said Martha Kuhl, a registered nurse and member of the union negotiating team. Kuhl, who specializes in caring for children with cancer, has worked at the hospital for 29 years.

The nurses had a three-day strike at the hospital in October.

As happened last time, the hospital will bring in at least 125 temporary nurses, postpone elective surgeries and downsize some critical care units, said spokeswoman Erin Goldsmith.

The major hurdle in the talks has been what nurses describe as "take-aways" in health benefits. In the past, the hospital paid the entire cost of premiums.


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The latest hospital proposal would give nurses three options: a Kaiser Permanente plan, a high-deductible PPO, and a PPO plan that would require nurses to pay nearly $4,000 a year to help offset rising premiums.

The Kaiser plan would not require an employee contribution, but many nurses prefer a PPO plan so they can have a greater choice of doctors and continue to have their kids cared for at Children's Hospital, Kuhl said.

Kuhl noted that co-payments for prescription drugs and office visits would also rise, and that the employee cost for premiums would increase every year.

All told, Kuhl said, the hospital's proposed compensation package would be well below what other private hospitals in the Bay Area offer, making it harder to attract and retain quality nurses.

Chiarappa said the changes have been driven by skyrocketing premiums and the financial struggles of the 190-bed hospital, which lost $15 million in 2010 and $26 million in 2009.

"We are a little stand-alone hospital that is doing everything in our power to survive," she said. "The point that gets lost is their unwillingness to accept the economic situation the hospital is in. We're not asking a lot. These are highly paid employees. A lot of our nurses make more than our primary care physicians. The reality is that the nursing profession has been very well compensated. We need to look at our long-term survival."

Union leaders have questioned the hospital's priorities, noting that it spent $8.9 million on compensation in 2008 for 26 top administrators, including social club memberships, and $560,000 in severance pay for two executives, yet would save less than $1 million a year from the health benefit changes.

Union leaders say they have offered to accept a one-year wage freeze in exchange for maintaining health benefits.

Other outstanding issues include safety training and policies, staffing for breaks and salaries.

Contact Sandy Kleffman at 925 943-8249.

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