Nurses, CPGH sign new 3-year contract

Vote not unanimous, money not only issue

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The bargaining unit for Central Peninsula General Hospital nurses and the board of the nonprofit CPGH Inc. that manages the Kenai Peninsula Borough-owned hospital announced Monday that both groups ratified and signed the agreement on a new three-year contract for nurses.

The hospital board voted unanimously to accept the new contract, but Dianne O'Connell, labor program director for Alaska Nurses Association, said full consent could not be reached during the nurses' two-day voting process Saturday and Sunday.

"It was not a unanimous vote," O'Connell said. "Wages were not the only issue in contention. The nurses were satisfied with the hospital's monetary offer. However, staffing, scheduling, trust and respect remain major concerns for some."

The deal, which is retroactive to Nov. 1, will increase wages, bringing CPGH nurses closer to parity with other Alaska hospitals. However, retirement health benefits and controls over patient-to-nurse ratio -- points the nurses requested in bargaining -- were not included. In fact, nurses lost some benefits.

"It wasn't something that we left pleased about," said Katie Davis, president of the CPGH chapter of the Alaska Nurses Association, the organization that represents the nearly 90 full- and part-time nurses at the hospital.

"There was a lot of disappointment, and there was some anger there."

The contract eliminates a 25 percent pay nurses received for not working when they were sent home because of low hospital admission numbers. Under the settlement, the first step would require nurses to fill other shifts or nursing duties. If there is still a shortfall of work, the hospital would solicit volunteers to leave before sending nurses home. But a cap was put in place that would allow nurses to be sent home for no more than seven days in a year.

Davis said the change to the low census staffing plan was a large concern for full-time nurses, especially those working in surgery or the emergency room where there can be frequent periods of low admissions. And she said the nurses have to bear the burden by themselves.

"The low census is a scare," she said. "We live in a small enough area that we could spend a lot of time home. We're the only department that stays home. The business offices don't stay home. We take the brunt of that."

O'Connell said the absence of retirement health care coverage was another sore spot for the nurses, many of whom will have between 20 and 30 years of service before their careers end.

"CPGH is not alone in this problem," she said. "But the potential solution is something we want to work on during the next three years."

As a result, the agreement creates a benefits committee consisting of management and nursing staff to look at all the aspects of a benefits package. It would serve a twofold purpose, educating staff about the costs of employee benefits and allowing nurses a greater voice in deciding how hospital benefits are administered.

Hospital CEO David Gilbreath said the agreement benefited both the nurses and the hospital.

"We knew we wanted to remain competitive and not lose staff to Anchorage, while still remaining fiscally responsible in our overall hospital budget," Gilbreath said. "We believe this agreement accomplishes that goal."

Over the next three years, the contract will bring CPGH nurses closer to parity with recent contract agreements at Providence Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage. Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau recently settled a contract with its nurses union at more than 2 percent above the Providence and Alaska Regional settlements.

Ed Burke, hospital chief financial officer, said the contract raises total labor costs by about $2.2 million over its duration. The CPGH Inc. board is looking into ways to defray this additional cost, said board president Diana Zirul.

"The board has already taken and is planning on taking a number of additional actions to control costs in order to make up for the salary increase," she said. "In selecting the hospital's new CEO and CFO, we have been able to reduce the amount of consulting contracts, a cost area the board believed was too high over the past years."

Zirul said the board was asking managers to undertake cost-cutting measures and said hospital administration would be investigating grants and other alternative funding sources. Hospital management will take more control of overtime costs, Burke said.

"The hospital will realize some cost savings due to these changes -- monies that help defray the overall cost of salary increases," he said.

Davis said the nurses' main objective was not to get more money, but rather getting more in the way of acknowledgement from the hospital that they were appreciated.

"We were looking for respect and being valued as nurses," she said.

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