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Hospital workers call for fair raises

Maui Health proposing no increase for first year of new contract

Decorated in signs like “Zero % is not a good faith negotiation,” a caravan of vehicles drives past Maui Memorial Medical Center on Monday afternoon in support of fair raises for health care workers. The union representing the workers said that Maui Health has proposed no increase in pay for the first year of the new contract, 1.25 percent in the second year and 1.25 percent in the third. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — Maui Health System workers are calling for fairer raises in the face of a proposed 0 percent increase in pay over the first year of their new contract.

The Kaiser Permanente-affiliated hospital operator has been locked in negotiations for about eight months with the union that represents nearly 900 workers across Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.

“We just want what’s fair. We’re not being greedy,” said Philip Velasco, co-chairman for the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals Hawaii Chapter. “We all know what happened last year and how it affected everybody financially. But at the same time, don’t be disrespectful to everything that everybody has put in.”

Velasco, who’s also a nurse in case management at Maui Memorial, said that Maui Health has proposed a 0 percent increase for the first year, 1.25 percent for the second year and 1.25 percent for the third, “which equates to $1.46 an hour more over the course of three years.”

The contract was set to expire June 30, 2020, but has been extended while the union and Maui Health continue negotiations. They brought in a federal mediator on Feb. 3 and will have a second meeting with the mediator today, which is the last scheduled negotiation session.

Led by emcee and DJ Zeke Kalua, vehicles parade past Maui Memorial on their way to War Memorial Stadium for a rally and speeches on Monday afternoon. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The union held a vehicle parade around the hospital on Monday to thank workers and put a spotlight the negotiations. Workers and their families decorated cars and waved signs saying “no zeros for heroes” and “value our service.”

Velasco said that the union is concerned with Maui Health’s focus on recruitment over retention. Recruitment, he pointed out, “is not an issue because we have a nursing program right down the road” at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The problem is retaining nurses and other staff with good enough wages so they can stay on Maui.

Under the proposed contract, new nurses would start at a higher level than they would under the old contract, which is an incentive for new graduates but discouraging for longtime nurses who are facing a 0 percent raise under the same proposal, Velasco explained. And, once those new nurses reach a certain point where their salary stalls, they may look for another job or move elsewhere, as many veteran nurses have done.

“The community suffers as a whole because we’re losing all these experienced, great staff to the Mainland, and not to say that we don’t have existing staff that are good, but that only puts a strain on them even more with the workload,” Velasco said.

Maui Health spokeswoman Tracy Dallarda declined to answer specific questions with negotiations ongoing. Maui Health said in a statement Monday afternoon that it “has been in good faith negotiations for several months” with the union.

A vehicle shows support for health care workers as it winds past Maui Memorial. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“Negotiations are still actively underway with a mutually agreed upon contract extension through April 2021,” Maui Health said. “Tentative agreements are in place, but there are additional issues to be discussed and agreed upon, which we will continue to do so with planned negotiations later this week. Maui Health remains optimistic that a fair and equitable agreement will be reached soon.”

Maui’s hospital workers have faced an unprecedented crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic and made countless sacrifices over the past year, said Velasco, who’s had to forego visiting his college-aged son on the Mainland and slept in a separate room of his home to avoid exposing his wife and his elderly in-laws. He cited staff who have slept in carports in fear of exposing their family and others who have become the sole breadwinners after their spouses lost their jobs at hotels. Many staff caught the virus during the two outbreaks at Maui Memorial and have been subject to ever-changing rules, a shortage of supplies and constant testing.

“When we as health care team members care for COVID-positive patients, we put ourselves and our families at risk,” said one nurse who requested anonymity out of concern for her job. “I do my job because I care about our community members and I know that our kupuna are priceless and irreplaceable.”

The nurse, who was just coming off a 12-hour night shift on a COVID-positive unit, said she was “exhausted” and juggling a changing sleep schedule but will still be back to take care of patients.

“I can’t understand why we aren’t going to be paid for our work the same as nurses on the Mainland or other islands,” she said. “Don’t we work just as hard?”

K. China Kapuras, a Maui Memorial employee since 2007, advocates for fairer raises for workers. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

K. China Kapuras is also disheartened that Maui Health is not offering employees a better raise after last year. She’s worked at the hospital since 2007, first in security and then as an admitting clerk from 2014 to now. Kapuras and her co-workers are often the first to interact with patients and callers.

“We’re the front line,” she said. “We catch it at the operator, we catch it when they come in to register. . . . We still have to go to the rooms to register them in the ER, unless they have symptoms.”

Kapuras is hoping for better pay, especially because she helps train new workers on the basics of insurance, “because that’s a big part of our job,” and has been at the hospital for more than a decade. New admitting clerks with less experience have told her that they make the same as Kapuras, making her feel like “the seniority doesn’t matter now.”

“I just feel that it shouldn’t be zero for our Maui Health heroes,” Kapuras said. “I’m an Army veteran. I have a bachelor’s in health care management. . . . I understand what we are going through with this COVID as far as the hospital, but I also understand we have to work harder since this has happened.”

Velasco said the if the two sides don’t come to a resolution today, they could possibly schedule additional bargaining dates.

Philip Velasco, co-chairman for the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals Hawaii Chapter, addresses health care workers at the War Memorial Stadium parking lot. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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