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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nurses union strike looms in San Diego

Contract talks continued yesterday evening between Sharp HealthCare and its nurses, even as both sides prepared for a three-day strike set to begin Monday at the nonprofit company's seven hospitals in San Diego County. Sharp asked doctors to postpone elective procedures at its hospitals for the duration of any strike and made arrangements for out-of-town replacement nurses to fill jobs vacated by strikers, said Dan Gross, Sharp's executive vice president for hospital operations.

The hospital chain also might ask ambulances to bypass some of its emergency rooms and deliver patients to other hospitals, Gross said. Sharp emergency rooms would remain open to walk-in patients. Sharp has discussed its plans with other San Diego County hospitals and county health care officials, he said.

Leaders at the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals said that they've met with their members to discuss plans for picketing. Nurses have begun assembling 1,000 protest signs. The union represents all of Sharp's 3,400 staff nurses. About 1,600 nurses are dues-paying members of the union.

It's unclear how many nurses would walk off their jobs, but Sharp nurses union president Corinne Hollings said she expects at least 1,000 would participate.

A strike could affect operations at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center; Sharp Coronado Hospital; Sharp Grossmont Hospital; Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women in San Diego; and Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, as well as Sharp Cabrillo Skilled Nursing Center, Sharp Mesa Vista psychiatric hospital and Sharp Vista Pacifica chemical dependency hospital, all in San Diego.

Negotiations restarted yesterday morning, which was one week after the nurses union notified Sharp of its plans to stage a three-day walkout beginning at 7 a.m. Monday.

Sharp managers and union leaders have been trying to agree on a contract for nearly three months. The previous three-year contract expired June 30, but nurses continued to work under its terms.

As of yesterday, the two sides continued to disagree on staffing levels, the handling of quality-of-care complaints and health insurance coverage for retirees younger than 65, union representatives said.

Temporary nurses, hired through San Francisco-based Health Source Global, were expected to begin arriving in San Diego on Saturday evening, Sharp spokesman John Cihomsky said. The nurses are being hired for five days, he said, and would work the entire week if a strike occurs. Striking nurses would not be called back to work until July 21.

Health Source's Web site said yesterday that replacement nurses would earn $3,150, or $52.50 an hour for 60 hours of work. “See your friends and tour San Diego at the best time of year,” the site urged.

Sharp will cover travel and lodging costs for the replacement nurses, and the company will pay a fee to Health Source for providing the workers, Gross said.

Hourly pay rates for Sharp's staff nurses run $34 to $41 an hour, he said.

Sharp also has asked nurses who work in non-clinical positions to help fill jobs vacated by strikers.

Sharp would deploy extra security personnel if a strike occurs to help ensure that people on picket lines stay off hospital property, Cihomsky said.

The company also plans to transport nurses across picket lines in vans or buses with darkened windows to hide their identities, he said. Enclosed canopies would be put up to cover hospital entrances.