It has been over a year now since Hawaii state nurses have voted to reject the two-year contract (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013) worked out by the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the state of Hawaii. Back in April 2011, registered professional nurses in HGEA Unit 9 voted in April 2011: 392 to accept; 509 to reject. Total unit membership is 1,561.

State nurses had been working under a previous contract from 2009 which already had reduced their pay by 5 percent and eliminated the “Step Movements” program, basically losing all the gains awarded to them in a mediated arbitration in 2007.

Now in 2011 they were being offered a 5 percent reduction in base pay, equal contribution (50/50) for public workers’ health benefits, and the loss of “Step Movements” entirely, which were designed to address Nursing shortage and retention issues. “Step Movements” were won by a strike in 1994.

At the time HGEA negotiators said three factors “weighed heavily” in the decision why to accept the offer.

“First, given the serious budget deficit facing the legislature, they are not in a position to defy the governor or the legislature. To do so can only result in additional cuts,” the union told its members.

“Second, we cannot expect a better outcome in arbitration given the poor economic condition of the state and other jurisdictions,” the union continued.

And the last factor was a “most favored nation” clause in the proposed deal that guarantees HGEA “equity with other unions currently negotiating with the employer,” the message said.

In 2009 when Hawaii State Nurses were being asked to take cuts, nurses at Wilcox Memorial Hospital (private) on Kauai had ratified a new contract that maintained current wages over the next three years. The contract maintains wages and employees’ health benefits through June 2012 for 130 registered nurses.

Now, in 2012, Wilcox Nurses (HNA) have ratified a 3-year contract with a 12 percent pay raise.

In May 2011, HGEA proceeded to arbitration. The timetable for arbitration allows for either the union or the employer to request the Hawaii Labor Relations Board (HLRB) implement impasse procedures. Within 20 days of the date of such request, an arbitration panel will be selected. A hearing will be held within 30 days after appointment of the panel and within 30 days after the conclusion of the hearing, a decision shall be reached. With this timetable, a decision could be reached three months following notification to the board. * Binding arbitration, where a three member panel is tasked with crafting a contract deemed fair and appropriate.

Bargaining Unit 9 negotiating team members:
Liz Asahara, Hilo Medical Center;
Sue Kaulukukui, Department of Health, Windward Health Center;
Susie Uwekoolani, Maui Memorial Medical Center;
Cash Lopez, Kauai District Health Office;
Janet Lee, Department of Public Safety, Wahiawa Correctional Facility

Honolulu labor attorney and mediation expert Michael Nauyokas said: “If they do not give the nurses more money and benefits you’re going to see an exodus from our rural state hospitals. We’re just gonna end up paying overtime and we’re gonna end up with a bigger bill.”

HGEA went into informal discussions with the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation (HHSC) regarding possible resolution to the various concerns expressed by acute care hospital nurses; included pay inequity with private sector acute nurses; recruitment difficulties in various facilities; and working condition issues caused by short staffing. HHSC operates 14 health care facilities on neighbor islands. This discussion is referred to as a “Supplemental Agreement” which offers only the State Nurses in acute care facilities a “supplement contract” not offered to the remaining State Nurses.

In September 2011, attorney Alan Davis and AFSCME labor economist Michael Messina were retained to prepare for arbitration. Davis successfully represented all HGEA bargaining units in arbitration over the past 15 years.
The goals and priorities of the negotiation would focus on the difference in pay between Hawaii’s public- and private-sector nurses which was now about 39 percent, differential and working condition, and continuation of “Step Movements.” HGEA has taken a position that will give up wage equality with private facility nurses as an issue in this negotiation and hopes over several years and many more contracts that it will be obtained.

In November 2011, Queen’s nurses ratify a 3 year contract with a 9 percent pay raise. At a time when other union members (HGEA) are facing pay cuts, furloughs and losing benefits, registered nurses at Queen’s Medical Center, Hawaii’s largest hospital, approved a nine-percent raise over three years.

“It was a fair raise. It keeps us up to pace, where we can maintain economic standards as far as supporting our families,” said Sharon Chun, an intensive care unit nurse and seven-year employee at Queen’s who’s a member of the (HNA) union’s negotiating committee.

Cindy Kamikawa, vice president of patient care at Queen’s and chief nursing said, “Our nurses are valuable members of our Queen’s ohana. The numerous contributions they make every day help Queen’s put our patients first as we continue to provide the best health care to the people of Hawaii for many years to come.

By March 2012 the Unit 9 negotiating team finally agreed to proceed to arbitration. The decision to proceed to arbitration does not mean that an arbitration hearing is imminent. Under the state’s collective bargaining law (Chapter 89, HRS) and the alternate impasse procedure HGEA signed with State of Hawaii in May 2011, there are a number of steps that must be completed before formal arbitration hearings can begin.

Meanwhile, in April 2012, Kuakini Nurses, Hawaii Nurses Association (HNA) ratified a 3 year contract with a 6 percent raise, and in May, Wilcox Nurses (HNA) ratify a 3 year contract with a 12 percent pay raise.

Until this day in 2012, the Unit 9 negotiating team still meets to discuss the proposals that will be submitted for arbitration later this year. State nurses will have to wait until an arbitration hearing can be scheduled for early September 2012, and hopefully with a decision rendered by mid-December.

Today, state nurses continue to work under a 2009 contract that has been stripped of “Step Movements” and added costs for Health Care, comparatively, giving nurses the same earning power as the 2005 wages contract.

There is a continued loss of experienced Nurses to private facilities and a continued increase in the use of expensive travel nurses, overtime pay, and sick calls that are adding up to higher costs and the inevitable degradation of the Acute Health Care system in Hawaii.

Nursing morale is at dangerously low levels as evidenced by a recent survey done by Hawaii Health Systems Corporation. The survey results are not made available to the public. Hospital management is hoping to improve the working atmosphere for nurses by employing gimmicks such as birthday party brunches with the CEO, costume contests, and cupcakes.

Experienced and dedicated nurses are leaving the state system due to wages that will not allow them to afford the cost of living in Hawaii and yet private facility nurses in Hawaii enjoy a 39 percent wage and benefit advantage. The state elected representatives are aware of the disparity and continue to ignore the consequences it has on the acute health care system in Hawaii.

The state will pour millions of our tax dollars into medical buildings, helipads, consultants, advisory committees, and information systems, all the time ignoring the fact that health care for the community begins and ends with Nursing.

If the old saying, “If you don’t have your health, you’ve got nothing” is true, and our State representatives allow this crisis to continue, then the working people of Hawaii will truly have “nothing”.

About the author: Ken Moskow is a former U.S. Airman and currently works at Maui Memorial Medical Center as a psychiatric/behavioral nurse with the adult and adolescent unit.