You would expect the nation’s top-tier hospitals to not just be invested in maintaining quality patient care, but also in cultivating a healthy work environment. The University of California’s treatment of its nurses suggests otherwise.
The UC and the California Nurses Association, which represents registered nurses at UC medical centers, have been in negotiations for a new contract since May. In the past nine months, since the previous contract expired in July, CNA has been negotiating for, among other things, retirement security and better working hours.
The UC’s proposed retirement plan would allow new nurses to choose between the traditional pension plan and a 401(k)-style plan – one that requires employees, rather than the UC, to invest their income to fund their retirement. Current UC nurses would see no changes to their pension. The UC has also proposed giving itself the ability to change nurses’ schedules without two weeks’ notice and make them work overtime to make up for its nursing shortage, according to Fong Chuu, a nurse who has worked at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for 34 years and is the Westwood representative for CNA’s contract bargaining team.
The CNA’s bargaining team, however, wants to maintain the current pension plan for new nurses and allow nurses to be able to control their own schedules. The association argues the pension plan encourages nurses to work at UC hospitals longer because they are provided with secure futures, and that overworking nurses presents a risk to patient safety.
To maintain UC hospitals’ nurse retention rates and ensure patient safety, the UC must meet the CNA’s demands for retirement and better working hours. Maintaining top-tier patient care requires treating nurses in a top-tier manner. Slyly changing retirement benefits and overworking nurses isn’t the way to do that.
The current retirement plan follows a traditional pension fund and requires the UC contribute to nurses’ future benefits. The risk of investment of pensions is placed on the plan provider – in this case, the UC – and provides a guaranteed monthly retirement income.
The UC’s proposed retirement plan would threaten these benefits, however, by shifting the burden from the University to nurses to fund and manage their retirement plans. This could decrease the retention rate of nurses at UC hospitals.
Chuu said she is concerned the UC won’t accurately present information about the new retirement plan to incoming nurses.
She added the new retirement plan would allow nurses early retirement at age 55, instead of at age 50. It’s not uncommon for nurses to retire in their 50s because the job is very physically demanding – Chuu said she knows of several nurses who are facing back problems from their taxing jobs. Tacking on an extra five years for retirement isn’t just bad for nurses: It can also put patients at risk.
Valerie Ewald, who has been a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, for 17 years and represents Santa Monica’s section of the bargaining team, said the new retirement plan is risky and that the current pension plan helps maintain nurse retention.
“There is a two-tier plan that they want to offer to new nurses. We don’t think that’s safe because it’s a risky 401(k),” Ewald said, “For us, the pension really does help attract nurses that are willing to stay with the UC system for a long time.”
Ewald added she thinks the UC’s proposal to change nurses’ schedules and be able to require them to work overtime doesn’t take their personal lives and busy schedules into account. A lot of nurses work three 12-hour shifts a week, which is an already physically straining amount, Ewald said.
And this rejection of the UC’s contract proposal is valid. Mandating nurses manage their retirement at their own expense, and forcing them to work extra shifts instead of hiring additional employees may save the UC money. But doing so could also overwork nurses and discourage them from staying with UC hospitals.
Of course, the UC’s retention rate of nurses is 90 to 95 percent, which is higher than at many other California hospitals, and the University receives approximately 16 applicants on average for each nurse vacancy. However, this misses the point: The UC has a nursing shortage, and is still finding ways to cut costs despite that.
Chuu said her department has several unfilled nursing positions.
“I told the doctors I don’t care about the applicants, I just need one to fill our department – just one experienced nurse,” she said.
Moreover, the high retention rate of nurses at UC hospitals is largely because of the current benefits the UC offers, some of which the union fought for during their last round of contract negotiations with the UC. Taking them away discourages nurses from staying.
World-class patient care doesn’t just mean treating patients with the latest and greatest in medical technology and practice. It also means providing a world-class environment for nurses and hospital staff to work in.