South Lake Tahoe residents need to know why Barton nurses unionized (Opinion)

Dorothy Dean
Guest column
Barton Health nurses have held two one-day strikes this year.
Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune

All Lake Tahoe residents need to know why Barton’s nurses unionized and why we continue to fight for a fair contract.

Barton is a non-profit hospital that generated over $22 million in revenue, less expenses in 2018.

They hold over $232 million in net assets and the CEO makes $50,000 a month.

This wealthy facility’s isolation makes it “the only game in town” for hospital nursing, since commuting over icy mountain roads to other employment opportunities, as every local knows, is not advisable.

The sacrifices made by ordinary workers, such as nurses, to live in this beautiful place are what some locals sadly call the “Tahoe tax.”

The “Tahoe tax” allows Barton to pay me at least $10 less an hour than other nearby California hospitals. Barton’s Tahoe location allowed it to obtain a “rural exemption” to California’s mandatory staffing laws — meaning that while the rest of the state’s patients received the undisputed benefits of limits on the number of patients that a single nurse could care for, Barton lagged behind.

Nurses were told they would no longer be paid for hours spent in mandatory education. Missed breaks and lunches were routine, and practically considered part of the hospital’s culture. As management raised the cost of health insurance, nurses that utilized Barton Hospital for their own healthcare needs found their credit scores impacted as they were quickly placed in debt collection for medical bills owed to their employer.

Wages stagnated as the cost of living at Tahoe rose. Nurses left, and the nurses hired to replace them didn’t seem to stay for very long. Perhaps the difficulty in finding nurses that could afford to live in Tahoe is what caused the hospital to scramble its pay scale to the point that a nurse new to Barton now makes the same salary as some nurses that have worked at Barton for 30 years.

These are only some of the problems we encountered. It appeared that administration either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the growing unhappiness of their nurses. All that seemed to matter to them was that revenue was up. Barton’s nurses felt undervalued, disposable, and disrespected — perfect conditions for unionization.

The unionization happened quickly. One nurse made up his mind to call the California Nurses Association, and CNA responded

Nurses from units all over the hospital bonded over concerns for our patients and our collective unhappiness at being treated so disparagingly. In November 2017, an overwhelming majority of Barton nurses voted to form a union.

Thanks to the union, things are getting somewhat better at Barton. Solidarity, mutual respect, and camaraderie among nurses have improved communication and patient care coordination. Barton relinquished their rural exemption and now adheres to California staffing laws. Administration attempted to raise health insurance premiums for all employees recently but was immediately shot down. Mandatory education is again paid time, and dedicated break nurses have helped ensure more consistent lunch breaks. There is more time for patient care.

Of course, I fear these positive changes will quickly evaporate if not memorialized in a fair contract. Contract negotiations have been ongoing now for over 18 months.

Barton’s management seems to think that by dragging their feet in finalizing a union contract that the nurses’ collective memory of their past actions will fade away. They are wrong.

The Nightingale Pledge, a vow recited by all nurses upon their graduation from nursing school, requires a registered nurse to “devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.”

Every nurse at Barton took this oath, and we will stay devoted to what we know is best for our patients, ourselves, and our community.

Dorothy Dean is a registered nurse at Barton. This article was used as a speech during the second time the nurses decided to hold a one-day strike.

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