Washington Hospital Center and nurses union reach tentative contract agreement

Washington Hospital Center and the union representing 1,700 nurses have reached a tentative agreement after a months-long contract dispute, union and hospital officials announced Wednesday.

Nurses at the region’s largest hospital walked off the job March 4 in a one-day strike after contract negotiations broke down. But talks resumed in the past two weeks, and final details were worked out Tuesday, officials said. Representatives of both sides declined to discuss details until nurses vote Friday and Saturday on whether to ratify the contract.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, canceled an informational picket scheduled for Friday and is recommending that members approve the agreement.

The agreement with the nurses union, which had been considering a second strike, comes a week after the 926-bed hospital announced it was laying off 200 employees across all departments, about 3 percent of the hospital’s 6,200 employees. Layoffs included some nursing managers but no bedside nurses.

Hospital officials have cited increased financial pressures from cutbacks in Medicaid and Medicare revenue, declining patient volumes, and bed taxes imposed by the District government. The hospital center is part of Columbia-based MedStar Health, which also owns Georgetown University Hospital.

“We are very pleased to have a tentative agreement that represents the hard work and commitment of both sides for a fair contract that values our nurses’ commitment to patients and their care,” said Washington Hospital Center President John Sullivan.

Cardiac nurse Lori Marlowe, a member of the union’s bargaining team, said the union was pleased to reach an agreement “that strengthens our ability to effectively advocate for our patients and protects RN professional and economic standards.”

The contract expired last spring, and the two sides have been at odds since over wages, benefits, staffing and patient safety.

One of the biggest sticking points was the hospital’s proposal to cut shift pay for working evenings, nights and weekends. Unlike other area hospitals that pay a flat hourly rate, the hospital center uses a percentage of base pay to calculate how much extra nurses receive for those shifts. Moving to a flat rate comes out to a cut of $2,000 to $20,000 a year, union officials have said.

“We can’t go into too much detail, but it was a nice resolution regarding the differential pay,” said the hospital’s chief medical officer, Janis Orlowski.

Several hundred nurses took part in the March strike, and many said the cuts would harm senior nurses more than less experienced nurses.

The hospital says entry-level nurses earn about $57,000 a year and experienced nurses earn about $98,000. The union says average pay is about $37 an hour, so a typical 36-hour workweek would bring in about $70,000 a year.

The strike cost the hospital about $4 million, Orlowski said Wednesday, less than her initial estimate of about $5 million to $6 million because the hospital estimates that about 700 nurses crossed the picket line. As a result, the hospital did not have to hire as many temporary nurses to help care for patients, she said.

Even though the job action was for a one-day strike, the nurses were locked out for four days because the hospital said it was obligated to pay 600 temporary nurses for a minimum of 60 hours of work.

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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