Nurses at Straub Medical Center got a New Year’s gift this week in the form of a tentative agreement that union leaders say includes provisions that will make working easier for caregivers and provide better treatment for patients. But it remains to be seen whether the concessions will be enough to sway the 400-member union.

Voting on whether to accept the new contract began on Monday, and by Tuesday about half had already cast their ballots, said Dan Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, which represents the Straub bargaining unit. The nurses have until noon Friday to vote, he said.

Officials at Hawaii Pacific Health, which owns medical centers including Straub, Pali Momi and Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, said in a statement that they were hopeful the nurses would accept the contract.

Hawaii Pacific Health Straub Medical Center sign.
Hawaii Pacific Health Straub Medical Center sign. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“We are pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with the Hawai‘i Nurses Association,” said Travis Clegg, Straub’s chief operating officer. “We believe this new contract demonstrates how much we value and respect our more than 400 registered nurses at Straub Medical Center.

“Giving our nurses market-leading salaries in Hawai‘i will help us attract and keep experienced nurses at Straub, while we continue to invest in our partnerships with local universities and colleges to build the workforce of the future,” he added.

Clegg did not specify what the market-leading salaries are.

Ross acknowledged the current proposal raises the pay of Straub nurses to equal that of nurses at other Hawaii Pacific Health hospitals, but he said that’s not enough to attract skilled nurses in a locale with an unusually high cost of living.

Ross pointed to an October study by the trade publication Becker’s Hospital Review, which found that while Hawaii’s mean hourly wage of $51.22 for RN’s ranked the state second nationally behind California, Hawaii fell to last place when that wage was adjusted for the cost of living.

In fact, Ross said, the wage issue leads to instability in the nursing workforce, as people migrate to Hawaii lured by the seemingly high wages and a shortage of nurses, only to leave when they realize how little that wage buys.

“That’s actually what’s been happening,” he said.

“Until you live here,” Ross added, “it’s hard to realize just how much it costs to live here.”

Another key issue has involved break time for nurses, Ross said. The tentative agreement assures that nurses will get “break relief.” That means dedicated staff will cover for nurses taking breaks for meals instead of requiring nurses to double their work load by covering for other nurses on break.

The tentative agreement calls for a panel to work out a long-term solution to provide break relief. Until such a plan can be crafted, Ross said, nursing supervisors and managers will provide relief.

UH President David Lassner spoke in October at a press conference regarding $1.75 million in funding of nursing educators. But the president of Hawaii’s nurses union says hospitals also need experienced nurses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii had about 1,000 vacancies for nurses as of the fourth quarter of 2022, according to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. State labor data also predicts an anticipated demand for nurses of 110 positions each year through 2030.

Former Gov. David Ige last year released $1.75 million to the University of Hawaii to create 39 nursing instructor positions on campuses statewide to ease the nursing shortage. While that’s expected to enable UH to train more new nurses, Ross, who is a nurse at the Queen’s Medical Center, said hospitals also need experienced nurses. And that, he said, means paying enough to attract nurses from elsewhere.

“We’ve been telling management for the last couple of years they need to compete nationally to hire and retain qualified nurses,” he said.

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