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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 4, 2002

1,400 nurses on strike; most services still OK

 •  Q&A: What's going on during the strike

By Mike Leidemann and Mike Gordon
Advertiser staff writers

Nearly 1,400 nurses at three major Honolulu hospitals remained on strike last night, but officials reported no major problems with medical care.

Nurses in scrubs walk the picket line at Queen's, the state's largest private hospital.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"In terms of patient care and clinical use, we're fully operational," said Dr. Peter Halford, chief of staff at The Queen's Medical Center, where more than 800 nurses walked off the job at 7 a.m. yesterday, joining striking nurses at Kuakini and St. Francis medical centers.

Queen's, O'ahu's primary trauma facility and the state's largest private hospital, said it was using about 250 replacement nurses, nonunion nurses, extended shifts for management and other nonstriking personnel, and a full contingent of other staff members to maintain a full patient load without canceling any surgeries or other procedures.

Halford said, however, that the hospital had been operating in a semicrisis mode, with a command center and daily planning meetings, since the nurses announced their intention to strike 10 days ago. "It's like a slow-motion disaster that goes on day after day," he said.

Services continued on a reduced basis at St. Francis and Kuakini yesterday. St. Francis said it was continuing to reduce the number of patients in its hospital, is not admitting any new patients and has canceled all surgeries. Outpatient services in doctors' offices on the St. Francis campus were busy, a spokeswoman said.

Hospitals will field phone calls

If you have questions about the strike and how it is affecting the individual hospitals:

• Queen's patients can call their physicians or dial 537-7117 to reach a staff member who can field strike-related questions.

• St. Francis has set up a Community Information Line with a recorded message about available services, at 547-6337. Call Kuakini's public relations office at 547-9168, or 547-9006 for recorded information.

St. Francis also has laid off 126 union and nonunion support employees in such areas as food service, maintenance and housekeeping, the spokeswoman said.

Kuakini reported no major disruptions in its patient care.

"We're monitoring services to see who can be discharged safely, but no one who needs care is being turned away," spokeswoman Donda Spiker said. The hospital is using about 20 replacement nurses and has reduced the hours of some support staff but has not had any layoffs, she said.

Some patients at Kuakini and St. Francis have been transferred to Queen's, which still has some available beds, Halford said.

No new labor talks were scheduled at any of the three hospitals last night, and several nurses on picket lines said they did not anticipate an early end to the strike. Union officials said they would continue their walkout as long as it takes to get a settlement. Hospital leaders said they were prepared to handle it.

Gov. Linda Lingle said her staff has been talking with those involved in the nurse's strike and that she is prepared to intervene if the public health is endangered.

"The only time I see myself coming forward to get involved in negotiations of any kind is when public health and safety is threatened," Lingle said.

Hospital officials said that hasn't been the case.

Jan Stewart, a nurse manager at Queen's, is working extended shifts with patients because of the nurses' strike.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"There hasn't been much disruption," Dr. Richard Friedman, vice president of medical services at Queen's, said at a noon news conference, five hours after the Queen's nurses walked off the job. "Can it go on indefinitely? No. For now we are OK, but the minute we see there aren't enough nurses, we'll be the ones screaming the loudest of anyone."

Several patients said they noticed little difference in the quality of their care yesterday.

"It was just like a regular day," said one woman who reported for her regular dialysis treatment at St. Francis Medical Center yesterday morning, then visited her doctor at the Physicians Office Building inside the Queen's complex in the afternoon. "Nobody did anything different, and nobody even mentioned the strike," said the woman, who did not want to be identified because she has sympathy for nurses on both sides of the picket line.

"There's a little more tension in the air," said Willie Belen, who was waiting outside the physician's building to pick up his wife, Anna, who works for a doctor there.

Outside Queen's yesterday, as nearly 100 nurses gathered or walked a picket line along Punchbowl Street, the mood was upbeat.

They waved at passing commuters who honked in support and cheered an ambulance whose driver whooped his siren while someone in the back stuck an arm out a window and flashed a shaka.

By late afternoon at a picket line around the corner on Lusitana Street, strikers were "not discouraged, but tired," said Lewis Hippach, a strike coordinator who normally works in a cardiac unit at Queen's.

Queen's officials said there was a "seamless" transition between the regular nurses and the replacement ones; they said they had purposely reduced the number of scheduled elective surgeries set for early this week in anticipation of a strike but hoped to be fully operational again by tomorrow.

Queen's patients with questions about appointments or potential staffing problems can call a referral line for regular updates, officials said. The number is 537-7117. A hospital spokesman urged patients to go to their scheduled appointments as planned but allow for extra traffic delays likely to occur because of the picket lines.

"In terms of patient care and clinical use, we're fully operational," Queen's Medical Center Chief of Staff Peter Halford, left, said yesterday. With him is Dr. Richard Friedman, Queen's vice president of medical affairs.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Of course some people may put off visits because of the pickets or parking delays. That has to be a concern, but it isn't a problem," Friedman said.

Hippach, however, doubted that hospital patients were getting top-of-the-line care. "A lot of managers who are being called on for duty haven't been at a bedside for 20 years," he said.

Both sides said they are open to negotiations, but the issues and differences vary from hospital to hospital. Staffing problems, paid time off, retirement and medical benefits, and salaries are among the areas of disagreements.

"You just hope they find some common ground," said Greg Junttonen, a nurse at the Rehabilitation Hospital, which is not on strike. He stopped by the Queen's picket line to offer support and to hand out several bags of bottled water and granola bars to the strikers.

"It's not all always about money, money, money," Junttonen said. "Staffing has always been a hot topic. I don't know if you are ever going to solve it, but you've got to keep bringing it up."

Nurses at two other medical centers, Kaiser and Kapiolani, reached tentative contract agreements late last month. Nurses at Kapiolani are scheduled to vote on the settlement tomorrow; nurses at Kaiser vote later in the week.

Those tentative settlements have helped ease the threat of a public-health crisis, Lingle said yesterday.

"I think the governor has to always be cautious during collective bargaining of any management/labor team because there are issues that are important to them," she said.

Also yesterday, a lawsuit was filed against the union representing the nurses — the Hawaii Nurses Association — on behalf of 10 patients at St. Francis Medical Center asking that 45 "essential workers" be allowed to work in specialized units during the strike.

Those nurses work in the hospital dialysis units for kidney patients, hospice care for the terminally ill and in the transplant unit.

A hearing on motions seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction in the case was set for Dec. 12 before Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario.

Advertiser staff writers Lynda Arakawa and Robbie Dingeman contributed to this report.

Correction: Dr. Richard Friedman is vice president of medical services at The Queen's Medical Center. His name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.