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Dozens of Straub nurses protest outside hospital

Zoe Dym

Over 50 healthcare workers gathered outside of Straub Medical Center in Honolulu this week. Their signs said, “Respect nurses,” and, “Safe staffing matters.”

The nurses are asking for better pay to improve the hospital's retention rate. Right now there are over 400 nurses at Straub, but insiders say it's not enough.

Patrick Switzer is a registered nurse with Straub and a member of the local union’s bargaining committee. He said the main issue affecting the working conditions has been understaffing.

"If you ask the employer, they’ll say that there’s a nursing shortage. However, we know that nurses like any other employees, respond to the job — their working conditions that they face everyday and the compensation," said Switzer.

The Hawaiʻi Nurses’ Association has been bargaining with Straub’s administration since September.

Straub agreed to increase the pay of nurses who have been employed there for more than five years, but an overwhelming 96% of the committee voted against the offer.

"The fact is that all across the state, nurses are not paid what we’re worth," Switzer said. "And our colleagues leave their jobs at the bedside to take mainland jobs that offer better and have a more reasonable cost of living to support their families."

The understaffed pool of nurses means workers don’t have time to take lunch breaks.

Dee Tyau has been working with Straub for 23 years as a registered nurse. She said the hospital has suffered chronic understaffing for the last eight years, but conditions got even worse during the pandemic.

"Many of us lately haven’t been even taking a half hour lunch break. We don’t drink water. We don’t get to use the restroom," said Tyau. "I see new grads tired and ready to quit, which is really sad because they’re new and lots of energy. And we’ve had to tell them that this is not normal."

"Even if you’re at four patients to one nurse, but you have three really sick patients, that’s almost like taking care of five or six. There definitely is more and sicker patients," said Tyau.

Tyau said Straub's chief operating officer Travis Clegg notified the nurses at the bargaining table that their hospital has the highest acuity, or the highest sickness of patients, out of the four medical centers operated under Hawaiʻi Pacific Health.

Clegg said the contract negotiations have been productive and they reached more than 20 tentative agreements so far.

"Hawaiʻi nurses are the second highest paid nurses on average in the country. California’s first, followed by Hawaiʻi," Clegg told HPR.

"By placing our hospital RNs who are experienced with more than five years at the top of the state, we think that’s gonna be a competitive rate that should help to not only recruit new nurses but also retain those experienced nurses and keep them here," said Clegg.

Over 70% of Straub's nurses have been working with the organization for more than five years.

Bargaining will resume early December.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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