Health Care Unions In California Split Over Nurse-To-Patient Ratios

Nurses 'Pit Against' Low-Wage Hospital Workers In Union Spat

One labor union’s position on nurse-to-patient ratios in California hospitals has outraged other unions that represent registered nurses in the state.

In California, hospitals are required by law to maintain certain nurse-to-patient ratios at all times -- a hard-won legal stipulation that went into effect in 2004 and has wide support among nurses as well as patient advocates in the state.

Although labor groups also strongly back the ratio law, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), which represents hospital workers of all kinds, signaled this week that in the face of state budget cuts to hospitals it might be willing to partially sacrifice mandated ratios.

During a call with other labor leaders on Thursday, SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan suggested that the California Labor Federation, an alliance of the state’s unions, should not stand in the way of any new legislation that would temporarily suspend ratios while nurses are on meals and breaks, according to RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, who was on the call.

DeMoro said that eliminating the ratios during breaks would undermine or even gut the ratio law entirely, since breaks in large hospitals occur all the time. Calling the ratio law a "holy grail" for nurses, she said that she considered the recommendation an affront to her own union. The union leaders on the call voted overwhelmingly against the recommendation, she said.

"This is just historically unprecedented," DeMoro said. "These are bedrock labor issues -- workplace safety, public safety ... This is a fundamental issue to these nurses. He was attempting to undo a fundamental reform."

Steve Trossman, a spokesman for SEIU-UHW, said that the union supports ratios and believes they should remain in place, and that Regan expressed his support for nurses ratios on the call. He said the union voted that the federation stand "neutral" on ratios during breaks only because of California’s budget situation. A large portion of the union’s members are in lower wage hospital jobs, and Trossman said many of them, such as maintenance and food-service workers, could end up losing their positions.

"The reality is that front-line hospital workers are going to bear the brunt of [cuts] -- we think there will be hundreds if not thousands of layoffs," he said. "When you’re in a budget situation like this, everything is worth taking a look at. That’s what we did."

The president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which is not part of the state labor federation, said he was also angered by the suggestion that unions not fully support the ratios during breaks.

"It’s outrageous,” said Sal Rosselli, whose union was formed after a split from SEIU-UHW. "In the private-sector hospital industry, profits are unprecedented. Suspending these ratios that we all fought for for years ... the industry has been trying to do this."

Trossman said the significance of the SEIU-UHW’s vote on the matter has been blown out of proportion. “It was quickly rejected," he noted. “We move on." And despite the drama surrounding the call, there is no imminent danger of nurses losing their ratios during breaks or otherwise, as no such legislation has been introduced.

Yet DeMoro, who said her union has been "inundated" with emails from nurses due to Thursday’s call, doesn’t seem likely to forget the incident. She said that rather than show solidarity among labor groups, the vote "pit nurses against low-wage workers."

"It might signal some of the trouble that the labor movement is in," she said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed RoseAnn Demoro's first name as Roseanne.

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