Uploaded: Tuesday, June 8, 2000 3 PM

Hospitals scramble to maintain nursing staff

With their nurses on strike for a second day and no new negotiating sessions scheduled, officials at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital have transported less-critically ill patients to other facilities.

Meanwhile, some of the 1,730 Packard and Stanford hospital nurses who went on strike Wednesday are again walking picket lines today, as the impasse with hospital officials over wage and other issues continues.

Packard Hospital sharply reduced its census to allow the hospital to cope with a shortage of pediatric nurses among the replacement nurses recruited for the strike's duration. As at Stanford Hospital, the replacement nurses were brought in from a Denver-based agency.

For the time being, Packard Hospital also is delaying cases of elective surgery, officials said.

The nurses' union, the Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement, and hospital administrators are far apart on salary. When contract talks ended at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday, the union was proposing 21.5 percent in pay raises over two years while the hospitals were proposing 8 percent over two years.

Staffing and health-care benefits are also at issue.

Contract talks could be complicated by hospital projections of a combined operating loss of $40 million this fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31.

Felix Barthelemy, vice president for human resources at the two hospitals, said Stanford Hospital showed a small operating loss last year while Packard Hospital had a modest operating gain.

"Even though we're facing a $40 million loss, we anticipated normal pay raises to keep us competitive" with other hospitals, Barthelemy said. CRONA nurses are among the higher-paid hospital nurses in the Bay Area, Barthelemy said, especially at the top end of the pay scale.

Pay for a CRONA nurse with 20 years' experience is $37.43 an hour, while beginning nurses earn $24.41 to $27.46 an hour.

Barthelemy said the two hospitals plan to break even in the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1.

Although several hundred replacement nurses are working, not everything went smoothly when the strike begun.

At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, a half-hour after nurses from various hospital units left their jobs, the union announced that nurses from Packard's pediatric and neonatal intensive care units were still working.

Later, the hospital made a formal request for the Packard nurses to stay on the job.

Linda Cerini, a neonatal nurse, came out at one point to confer with union president Sue Weinstein. Cerini said the neonatal unit required staffing of about 20 nurses, but only six replacement nurses had shown up.

"We will not abandon our patients," Weinstein said. "We are asking for a formal request (from the hospital) to stay."

"Several (neonatal) nurses have agreed to stay to help critically ill patients," hospital spokesman Mike Goodkind later confirmed. "We're all looking for patient care and patient safety."

CRONA nurses also worked in the pediatric unit after the strike began. "They were very generous and professional," said Barthelemy.

About 500 nurses, including nurse managers and replacement nurses, were working in the two hospitals Wednesday after the strike began.

Bathelemy said the two hospitals before the strike had about 100 nursing vacancies, mostly in the more specialized areas of the intensive care units and operating rooms.

Of the 1,730 nurses who work at the two hospitals, fewer than half, or about 750, work full time. The rest work part-time, maybe two or three shifts a week.

"We have tremendous flex in our operations," Barthelemy said. When the patient census goes up, some part-time nurses work extra shifts. And when the hospitals are short of ICU or operating room nurses, the hospitals typically use nurses from an agency.

So although a number of agency nurses are in the hospitals because of the strike, Barthelemy said, their presence is not unusual: On a typical day, 10 to 12 agency nurses work in the operating rooms.

The strike by the nurses' union is its second at Stanford, the first walkout coming in 1974.

--Don Kazak