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Nurses at odds with RRMC

Differences between Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and its registered nurses remain unresolved after eight negotiation sessions.

The sides are scheduled to meet with federal mediator Darrell Clark at the Hilton Garden Inn Thursday morning. A three-year contract between the hospital and nearly 900 nurses, represented by Oregon Nurses Association, expired June 30. The contract applies only to Rogue Regional and not Asante's other hospitals in the region.

In the aftermath of the last bargaining session on July 7, the nurses began a public campaign, distributing lawn signs around town. Union members also are staging a rally at the hotel in advance of Thursday's mediation session.

"Our mood is hopeful that we can come to an agreement," said David Baca, a registered nurse in the emergency department, and member of the negotiating team. "Hopefully, the federal mediator can close the gaps we couldn't close."

While the union representatives spelled out their concerns, hospital administrators played things close to the vest, declining to elaborate on Asante's position on any issues in play.

"Our goal is a fair contract and we have every reason to believe we can achieve that," said Paul Macuga, whose title at Asante is chief people officer. "Our position is that we don't negotiate in public and that work is done at the bargaining table."

Through its spokesperson, Asante declined further comment.

In a report to its membership dated July 13, the Oregon Nurses Association negotiating team stated the hospital's administration team "made it clear that they have moved as far as they are willing to go with regard to the non-economic issues. They proposed wage increases of one and a half percent for each year of the contract and indicated they still had a small amount of room to move on wages."

Baca confirmed that wages weren't as much of an issue with its rank and file as working conditions.

Negotiators wrote earlier this month  they were "disappointed that RRMC has not initiated a single improvement to working conditions, recruitment efforts, or our ability to retain our nurses. Rather, they initiated takeaways from what we currently have."

Among changes from the recently expired pact are: Decreases to earned time off accrual for some nurses, replacing an earned sick time plan including an employer sponsored disability plan with lower accrual rates for some nurses; increasing employment time prior to receiving tuition reimbursement; and removing staffing law language from the contract.

The union credited Asante for its support of changes involving its nursing resource team and outreach nurse positions, new pay differentials for nurses with bachelor's degrees and nursing resource team nurses, as well as increased shift differentials, a summer bonus program and willingness to pay for initial mandatory certifications for new grad and residency nurses.

A major sticking point for the ONA, however, is the hospital's "buddy system" for meal and break relief.

ONA spokesman Kevin Mealy said nurses who typically care for five patients are extended to as many as 10 during breaks.

"Research shows increasing nurses’ patient numbers by even one patient increases the risk of infection and illness for patients and increases the risk of workplace injury and burnout for nurses," Mealy said.

Baca said the union thinks staffing for breaks could be resolved within each department.

"In our opinion, it's unacceptable to continue to doubling nurses assignment for any amount of time," he said. "We would like each unit to come up with a break and meal plan through flexibility or adding staff."

Baca said nurses often eschew breaks and meals because they want to make sure patients receive proper care.

Mealy said nursing shortages, here and elsewhere, have contributed to fatigue. Rogue Regional has offered significant bonuses for surgery and cath-lab trained nurses, yet many of the positions remain unfilled.

ONA, which last went on strike at Rogue Regional (then Rogue Valley Medical Center) in 1990, has distributed 50 business signs, 400 lawn signs and 2,000 window stickers this month.

"We've gone to mediation before 2011, but we haven't worked without a contract since then," Baca said. "We don't want to interrupt the business of the hospital because we take care of the community."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

A car passes by a sign on Spring Street in Medford supporting nurses in their dispute with Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]