A woman, Rebecca Fergus, stands at the podium addressing the Riverside County Board of Supervisors who are facing her.
Rebecca Fergus, a public health nurse, addresses the Riverside County Board of Supervisors at the March 19 meeting. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

A group of public health nurses (PHN) Tuesday called on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to support their push for increased pay.

“Wages that accurately reflect the PHNs’ true value is a small investment for healthy residents, reduced healthcare costs and the pride from knowing that we are leaders and part of the number one team,” Rebecca Fergus, a public health nurse for Riverside University Health System – Public Health, said during the public comment portion of the meeting.

According to Fergus, the maximum hourly salary for public health nurses is on average about 20% less than registered nurses (RN) working in the clinics and hospitals. This is despite increased licensing and educational requirements, as public health nurse Jonathan Espiritu pointed out.

“While most nurses at the hospital are able to practice with only an associate’s degree, public health nurses have to have a bachelor’s degree in order to practice,” Espiritu said. “And, upon graduation, we have to have our public health nursing license in addition to our RN license.”

Espiritu said PHNs are prepared to not only provide medical care to people and respond to public health emergencies like Covid-19 and Mpox, they are also able to investigate diseases, provide health education to the public, build coalitions for healthier communities and develop policy.

“We work at the grassroots level, working with individuals, families and entire communities,” Espiritu said. “We work with everyone from infants to the elderly. Public health nurses are nurses.”

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Public health nurse Theresa Nicole Holt said they work with some of the community’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations using the same nursing process used in a clinic or hospital setting.

“We’re educated RNs that will sit and listen and work with them to assess their needs physically, emotionally and prevent future issues,” she said. “This can keep them out of the hospital.”

Fergus said the nurses, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been left behind in contract negotiations with the county, because the union has largely been focused on bringing up the pay for registered nurses.

“If you go back to 2012, and I believe you were there Supervisor [Kevin] Jeffries, they focused on market value for the RNs, and we were told that we would be considered the next time,” Fergus said in response to a question from Jeffries.

Fergus said that during the bargaining process for the following contract, the union was again able to secure additional pay for registered nurses, but not public health nurses.

While the supervisors were limited in their ability to respond, Board Chair Chuck Washington asked Fergus to call his office to set up a meeting, and Supervisor Karen Spiegel said it was her understanding that Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari was working with human resources (HR) to look into the issue.

“Let’s see that play out,” Spiegel said. “If HR is involved, that means they’re looking into it, so I think that’s the first step, and I have confidence that they will be successful for you.”

A full recording of the meeting can be found here on the county’s website.

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.