Quick Take:

Amid what they’ve categorized as “extremely contentious” negotiations with the management of financially strapped Watsonville Community Hospital, the hospital’s nurses will be making their side of the argument Monday afternoon with a picket along Airport Boulevard.

Watsonville Community Hospital nurses are holding a picket Monday to protest “deep concerns about safe staffing, patient safety, retention, and recruitment” amid what they say have been “extremely contentious” negotiations for a new contract.

“We sacrificed and struggled to care for our community during the pandemic and then worked to save this hospital from bankruptcy,” Annabelle Covington, a registered nurse (RN) in the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, said in a statement. “It is almost impossible to believe that new management would now take steps to cut protections that would hurt retention and recruitment and erode patient care. We are committed to bargaining in good faith for a fair contract and that is what we expect from our employer.”

Their contract expired in May and negotiations began in July — since then, the parties extended their contract several times.

Hospital CEO Stephen Gray, who officially started the job Nov. 1, told Lookout that his administration’s team is “committed to a fair negotiation process.” He said the hospital staff was in a negotiation session all day Friday with the nurses’ representatives, and they have another session scheduled for later this month.

“These things always take some time,” he said. “We’re incredibly committed to our entire staff and to our nurses and to our patients and their safety.”

Gray is taking the reins as the hospital enters its second year under public ownership and in the face of great uncertainty. In August, the hospital announced it was barely making payroll and was granted a $8.3 million no-interest loan from the state as part of its Distressed Hospital Loan Program.

The Pajaro Valley Healthcare District took public ownership in September 2022 and has been implementing a business plan. Its aim: to steer the hospital out of bankruptcy toward a sustainable future while balancing its commitment to support its staff and serve the community’s health care needs.

To reduce costs, the district’s governing board, as part of its business plan, agreed to shifting a large number of its part-time nurses to full-time positions.

Julie Judd, an RN in the telemetry unit at Watsonville, has been a nurse at the hospital for 30 years.

“Cuts to our rights and protections by nonclinical upper management won’t be safe for patients or nurses,” she said. “Our community has fought hard alongside us nurses to regain control of this hospital, and we all deserve better from this management team.”

Hospital leaders say the shift led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings by reducing insurance costs and also reducing their reliance on costly travel nurses.

Since the hospital announced that plan during the transition into public ownership last year, the nurses have been denouncing the decision. They say it disrupted the nurses’ routines, led to nurses leaving the job, caused nurse shortages and has put nurse and patient safety at risk.

Gray said the nurses want to get back some of the part-time positions that were shifted to full-time. But the hospital would need to fill those hours by either hiring more nurses which would add benefits costs to the hospital, or hiring more travel nurses — which would be very costly.

“As we’re still a hospital that is continuing to lose money month over month, we need something to give from them to help us offset those costs,” he said.

One way the hospital proposed to do that is to have the nurses pay a larger share of their health care benefit load.

“The industry standard seems to be that employees pay about 20% or more of the cost of their benefits — the nurses right now pay a little less than 3% of their insurance benefits,” he said. “If we’re going to need to add costs, and add some part-time positions back, then we’re going to need to offset those costs in some way.”

As for the concerns nurses are raising about patient safety, Gray said the hospital is committed to and is maintaining it. He said the hospital has safe staffing-to-patient ratios and is always looking to get funding to get new equipment to continue strengthening patient safety.

“Safety is No. 1, it’s really important,” he said.

The nurses will be doing an informational picket outside the hospital on Monday from 3:30 p.m to 5:30 p.m. at 75 Nielson St., at the corner of Airport Boulevard. The union, the California Nurses Association, represents about 250 nurses at the hospital.

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After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...