On the morning of June 26, about 35 Petaluma Valley Hospital (PVH) nurses and their families gathered to march down East Washington Street to raise awareness of the hospital’s unfair employment practices. Their signs declared “Patients Before Profits,” “Fair Contract or PVH RNs Strike,” and “Patient Safety is Our Priority,” among others. The nurses are angered at what they deem inequitable pay and restricting benefits, attempts at limiting union representation, and unscrupulous and damaging practices such as scheduling traveling nurses before core staff.
“What have we done to deserve this?” says Jim Goerlich, PVH nurse and President of the PVH Nurses’ union which represents the approximately 150 nurses that are employed at the hospital. “It has been four years since our last contract, and five years since we have had a raise. In that time we’ve worked through three fire seasons and a pandemic. The community supports us and we give great care, even with all we’ve been through. It shows how committed we are to this community and this hospital.”
Wages at Petaluma Valley Hospital, a hospital managed by St. Joseph Health, are 23 to 37 percent behind other local hospitals, which has been detrimental for retention. Once nurses are trained, they tend to leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. That has forced the hospital to retain more “traveling nurses,” – those that work short-term assignments as contract employees.
“Our turnover rate is crazy, as well the amount of travelers we have in the hospital,” says Goerlich. “Our ICU is about half travelers right now, because they can’t hire. They’re even offering $10,000 hire-on bonuses and they still can’t get people to stay.”
It has been over the past two years that the nurses’ union has been negotiating with hospital management for their contract. In their opinion they are not asking for very much, other than keeping those benefits they already had in the previous contract and getting their wages closer to the local average. However, St. Joseph Health wants to reduce sick time, take away the nurses’ earned disability reserve if they get very sick or injured, make it more difficult to get time off, limit nurses access to union representation, and give schedule preferences to traveling nurses and even put them in lead roles.
“Travelers are supposed to be temporary,” says Goerlich. “But because the hospital caused this situation because there is such a [wage] disparity among other hospitals, they had to go to using their travelers. Our current contract limits how they can use those travelers. Now they want to write a contract that gives preferential treatment to the travelers. Travelers don’t know the hospital, they don’t know the staff, they don’t know the policies and procedures. They’re not fit to be leaders in the hospital. You don’t know the strengths and weaknesses of the nurses you’re working with – how could you lead them? You’d think you’d be investing in your core staff.”
Goerlich hopes the union and hospital management can agree to new contract terms without needing to strike. But he finds a large disparity between the message the hospital projects to the public, and reality. In the lobby a sign states “Heroes work here! We love our caregivers, doctors and their families.” And yet the hospital failed to provide personal protective equipment at the outset of the pandemic. It was only through the generous donations of the public that thousands of masks were made available to employees.
“The contrast between them calling us heroes, and what they’re actually doing in the hospital and with our contract…is an insult,” says Goerlich. “We’re bedside caregivers. All we want to do is come to work and take care of these people in the best way that we can.”