Sunday, May 13, 2001

Molokai nurses
strike starts in
friendly way

The nurses are asking
for a 1 percent raise
over a 1-year contract

By Helen Altonn

It isn't your usual kind of strike. Family, friends and former patients delivered food, talked story and helped carry signs.

Said one: "Welcome to Molokai. Population 7,000. RNs: 6."

The strikers are Molokai General Hospital's six registered nurses.

"Hopefully, it won't be too long," said Dr. Philip Reyes, co-medical director of the hospital with Dr. Emmett Aluli. "We would like everyone to get back to work and be friends again, as we have in the past."

Caroldean Kahue, chief negotiator for the Hawaii Nurses Association, said: "This is such a good bunch of people, wonderful people, with so much affection."

She was on the Friendly Isle yesterday when the strike began at 7 a.m.

Picketing started on the road leading to the hospital but the strikers weren't very visible, so they got permission to go onto the main highway and into Kaunakakai, Kahue said.

"They've got great support. It's like campaigning for one of the politicians," she said, noting about 25 to 30 people formed the picket line at one point.

Reyes said he hadn't heard from the federal mediator and no negotiations were scheduled, but the parties remained on call.

He said the hospital was "doing fine" yesterday. It is prepared to handle patients "and to go until such time as we come to a settlement." Most cases involve urgent care or office visits for minor problems, he said.

Kahue said the nurses in 1997 were earning $25.10 an hour, and they're still earning that.

"Their main priority is patient care," she said. "We're headed for a nursing shortage and staffing goes down to six for a seven-day, 24-hour operation, and that's really minimal."

Mary Bonifacio, hospital director of nurses, said more nurses haven't been recruited because patients have declined.

But Kahue said with low staffing, the nurses' workload and responsibilities have increased significantly.

"We think the pay raise requested is very, very modest," Kahue said.

The nurses asked for a 1 percent increase starting in October until April of next year, when the contract will reopen for negotiations, she said.

She said the hospital didn't want to give an increase, "saying it's having a difficult time, which we understand," she said. "But we think the nurses have done their part."

The hospital offered a $350 bonus with a 1 percent increase per year over the next two years if the contract was extended to 2003, she said. The nurses want the contract to expire in 2002, she said.

They agreed to the $350 bonus but asked for an agreement -- refused by the employer -- to give them a matching increase for anything above that negotiated with the United Public Workers for its hospital employees, Kahue said.

She said the nurses association recognizes that the hospital is hurting, as well as others in Hawaii and across the nation. But the total amount of the pay raise for the six nurses per year would be less than $4,000, she said, and competitive salaries are needed "to try to lure people to come to Molokai."

News of the strike has been slow to reach Molokai residents. Blossom Poepoe, manager of Kanemitsu Bakery and Restaurant, said she heard little about it because of various events going on over the weekend. "Probably (today) they'll realize the hospital is on strike."

Crystal Egusa, manager of the family's Friendly Market Center, said she was talking with employees about the strike, but they had little information about it. "With the teachers strike and economic conference, it's a little blurp on the side."

She said the pay request didn't sound like much and that she knows the nurses "work really hard" because her mother-in-law was there in long-term care for many years.

On the other hand, she said, "I know the hospital is having a hard time."

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