Barton Health nurses hold protest in South Lake Tahoe amid ongoing negotiations | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Barton Health nurses hold protest in South Lake Tahoe amid ongoing negotiations

Barton Health and the California Nurses Association remain locked in negotiations more than a year after local nurses overwhelmingly voted to unionize.

On Monday, despite the "steady progress" that Barton says has been made in the negotiations, dozens of nurses took to U.S. 50 with signs and a message: Barton needs to do better.

Specifically, the nurses want better health insurance, improved safety standards and a solution to what they say is a high turnover rate in their ranks — all areas that Barton, one of the area's largest employers, says it either excels in or is on par with similar health care systems.

The two sides are slated to continue negotiations tomorrow.

Monday's demonstration — which did not impact patient care, according to Barton — marked the first public display of dissatisfaction since about 87 percent of nurses voted in favor of joining the California Nurses Association in November 2017, a move opposed by Barton's board of directors and administration.

Dr. Clint Purvance, president and CEO of Barton Health, told the Tribune at the time that hospital leadership favored "a direct, open communication and working relationship with our nurses and with all of our employees without an outside third party being involved in that."

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The nurses association said the vote was necessary to address workplace deficiencies.

Since March the two sides have met 21 times to try and strike an agreement.

According to Barton, those 21 meetings have produced 26 tentative agreements, with two meetings scheduled in December and more planned come January.

"Barton Health believes that we have made steady progress toward reaching our first-ever agreement with the union," Mindi Befu, director of public relations at Barton, said in an email. "First-time contracts typically take well over a year to finalize given the importance of the agreements being in place for years to come."

But, in one of the multiple contradictions offered by the two sides, not everyone feels progress is coming fast enough.

Kelli Teteak, a Barton nurse for 15 years and member of the negotiation team, told the Tribune they are only about halfway to the finish line for an overall agreement.

Among the handful of major outstanding issues, improved health insurance is one of the top priorities for the nurses, who have been advocating for "fair and equitable" insurance, said Beth Dameral, a registered nurse for 22 years at Barton and member of the negotiation team.

Barton has an outside expert analyze its benefit package to ensure it is "fair and equitable," Befu said in response to the claim.

"Barton Health offers a rich medical benefit package including three health benefit plans to choose from, where employees can pay as little as $20-60 per pay period for medical health care coverage depending on the size of their family," Befu added.

Contrary to that claim, many nurses struggle to pay for some of the very same health care they help provide, said Romie Navarro, a nurse at Barton for the past 11 years and member of the negotiation team. Some employees are over $10,000 in debt due to medical expenses.

"Your health care providers can't pay for health care," Navarro said as vehicles zoomed by on U.S. 50 Monday morning.

Additionally, the nurses put forward a health insurance proposal this past summer, but they have yet to hear back from Barton, according to Navarro.

Befu said Barton and the nurses association have agreed to consider the health insurance proposal in connection with other economic proposals in later negotiations.

Safety standards, particularly staffing levels, is another key issue for the nurses.

In 1999 California became the first state in the country to move toward mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios for hospitals.

The ratios set the maximum number of patients that can be served by one nurse. For example, emergency room units must have a minimum of one nurse per four patients.

Navarro said Barton is failing to abide by those staffing standards at all times and that is a safety issue.

Barton disputes that claim.

Not only does it comply with the law regarding nurse-to-patient ratios, Barton typically exceeds what is required of rural hospitals, Befu said.

In fact, Barton requested in 2017 to remove a waiver for rural hospitals that allowed it to operate on a ratio of 1:6, rather than 1:5. Barton hired an additional six full-time nurses to comply with the change, Befu added.

A third major priority for the nurses is reversing the high turnover rate they say is currently plaguing Barton.

Employee retention — an issue that draws a direct line to the area's housing crisis — is a problem facing many employers in the Tahoe Basin.

Addressing safety standards and improving health insurance could go a long way to reducing turnover, the nurses argue.

"We're tired of seeing good nurses leave Barton," Teteak said.

Befu counters that Barton's turnover rate is comparable to California's average for nurses.

While there seems to be little agreement on some of the major issues, there does appear to be agreement on one thing: more work is needed.