Kapiolani Nurses Vote to Strike, But Hospital CEO Says Hospital Capacity Won't be Affected

Jan 12, 2021

The nurses at Kapiolani Medical Center have authorized a strike after about four months of negotiation with the hospital. 


The nurses at Kapiolani Medical Center have not gone on strike since the 1970s-- before Hawaii Pacific Health became the facility’s parent company.

However, 93% of the nurses union voted to authorize the strike.

“It's the respect,” President of the Hawaii Nurses Association, Daniel Ross said. 

“I can tell you, honestly, the way things have gone, there's a lot of nurses who are angry at management. They're really angry.”

The main dispute for the group of about 700 nurses concerns COVID-19 protocols. 

The initial proposals the union presented to management as early as September were rejected outright, explained Ross.

Workers were expected to reuse N-95 face masks that have been put through UV light. However, Kapiolani Medical Center CEO Martha Smith noted that the UV technology follows federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We sterilize them with ultraviolet light, we're using the CDC and manufacturer's recommended guidelines, which say that you can use those masks and sterilize them and reuse them if they're in good condition, up to 10 times,” she said.

“We are currently reusing them four times, which is well within the manufacturer and CDC guidelines for emergency use.”

The union also opposes the hospital’s policy of nurses working on both COVID-19 patients and non COVID-19 patients.

If staff are infected with COVID-19 in the community, Kapiolani doesn’t provide additional time off to isolate. That policy means unless workers are infected on the job, they are expected to use their sick leave.

Ross said there was no way to know for sure where someone got COVID, but Smith said if the staff is wearing proper PPE they would not be catching it in the hospital. She says Kapiolani also does in-house contact tracing.

A nurse at Kapiolani, Paulette Vasu had doubts about the policy.

“We are pretty confident that one of our nurses and one of our residents did contract COVID from a patient, but the management said no, it's community acquired,” she said. 

Vasu recalled management asking if people wore proper PPE and if they washed their hands. If employees answered yes to those questions, the infection was deemed community spread.

“We don’t believe that at all,” Vasu said. 

Because the hospital specializes in women and children, it isn’t seeing as many COVID patients as other hospitals. Since March, only about 52 patients have been COVID positive.

The possible strike comes as the state is seeing surges in COVID-19 cases. The lack of healthcare workers, such as nurses, is the state’s main limiter for hospital capacity.

However Smith said a strike would not impact hospital capacity.

“We have a plan to replace staff should they go on strike,” she said.

“We are working with agencies to bring in staff that have the skill sets that we need to take care of the patients that we see here. So we do not anticipate having to transfer patients anywhere.”

However, bringing in nurses from the mainland would be costly. The hospital points to more than $21 million in lost revenue due to COVID-19.

Ross thought the parties were close to an agreement, but if they were to go on strike it would be due to unfair labor practices.

“If management had from the beginning, been following practices in negotiations, as they should have been, we'd not be here,” he said.

“They started moving slightly more recently, these are things that should have been happening in the first weeks, it was ridiculous until the contract expired. There was no progress whatsoever.

The labor contract expired in November.

The nurses have to give the hospital 10 days notice before going on strike.

Another meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, but the union has not yet decided whether it will wait until then to give Kapiolani formal notice of a strike.