A continued freeze on allowing registered public health nurses to step up to the next pay tier was the primary reason they rejected a proposed two-year contract with the state, a union leader said yesterday.
“Step movements have been frozen for two years already,” said Sue Kaulukukui, Bargaining Unit 9 director. “It just kind of cripples (new) nurses without them. So they have to enter the work force at a low wage, and then they’re stuck there.”
Unit 9, representing 1,500 nurses who work at state-run hospitals and other government health care facilities, voted 509-392 to reject the contract. The other six Hawaii Government Employees Association units ratified the deal Monday.
The contract cuts worker pay 5 percent and increases their share of paying for health care premiums to 50 percent from 40 percent. The contract gets rid of furlough days but gives workers an extra nine days off per year.
The nurses and the state are expected to return to the bargaining table, but no date has been set, an HGEA spokeswoman said.
KAULUKUKUI said the ban on step increases often results in a high turnover of new nurses, many of whom come out of school saddled with loans.
“It’s hard on the morale of the nurses who see them leave” after having trained them, said Kaulukukui, a public health nurse at the Department of Health.
The public health nurses in Unit 9 provide acute, nursing home and rural health care services 24/7, working for the Health Department, the University of Hawaii, other state agencies, the State Hospital and 12 other health care facilities.
Miles Takaaze, spokesman for the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. — the state agency that operates government hospitals — said the nurses’ rejection surprised HHSC officials.
“HHSC will continue to examine the situation and remains committed to working closely with the Abercrombie administration and the HGEA in developing an equitable solution for the Unit 9 nurses in this financially challenging period,” Takaaze said.
Kaulukukui said the first step movement usually comes after six months, and a second one might occur about 18 months later. “It’s something to look forward to, but now there’s nothing to look forward to,” she said.
“Hopefully some of the issues can be resolved so the nurses can feel good about ratifying a contract,” Kaulukukui said.
Salaries for registered professional nurses for Level II start at $57,828. Top-tier, Level VII nurses make up to $110,088.
Gail Tiwanak, executive director of the Hawaii State Center for Nursing, said about a year ago that private-sector registered nurses’ salaries ranged from about $68,640 for a new graduate to $83,200 for experienced nurses.
Tiwanak said many of the public health nurses work at neighbor island hospitals. They are “really vital to the communities they serve,” she said.