Washington Hospital Center nurses cancel strike, agree to resume negotiations

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:22 PM

Nurses at the Washington Hospital Center have canceled a one-day strike that had been scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving, and management will postpone controversial wage cuts as part of an agreement that is bringing the two sides back to the bargaining table, officials said Wednesday.

In a joint statement, the two parties said they agreed to resume negotiations Nov. 29 under the auspices of a federal mediator and to continue talks over the next 90 days without the threat of a strike.

Managers also agreed to recognize National Nurses United as the collective bargaining representative of the 1,600 nurses at the hospital center, the region's biggest private hospital. The nurses voted Nov. 11 to hold a one-day strike to protest unfair labor practices and force management to negotiate a new agreement as the labor dispute became increasingly rancorous.

"We are actually very delighted with this arrangement," said Janis Orlowski, the hospital's chief medical officer. In return for the union canceling the strike and negotiating without threat of a strike for three months, the hospital agreed to delay until March 1 the cuts in pay differentials that nurses receive for working evenings, nights and weekends. Those cuts had been set to take effect Jan. 2.

In a statement released by the union, veteran nurse Jean Keppler said nurses were pleased that the hospital had recognized "the will of the nurses represented by NNU."

She added: "The nurses are united and resolved to secure a new collective bargaining agreement that respects our hard work and that allows for optimal, high-quality patient care."

The two sides have been at odds over wages, benefits, nurse staffing and other issues, including the firing of 18 nurses who did not report to work during the February snowstorms.

After the one-year contract expired and talks broke down this summer, the hospital imposed its final offer Oct. 1, which included cuts to the pay differentials.

A few days later, the local nurses union voted to join National Nurses United, which has about 155,000 members and is the largest nurses union in the country. The union has organized one-day strikes at hospitals in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.

On Nov. 1, the new union filed a complaint with the District health department, asking for an investigation of staffing and patient care.

The union alleged that nurses were caring for too many patients, resulting in compromised care, which hospital officials have denied.

The health department completed its annual on-site inspection of the hospital Tuesday, and its preliminary review found no concerns about nurse staffing, Orlowski said.

A spokeswoman for the health department said she could not comment on specifics of the complaint because of the ongoing investigation.

Hospital officials had been preparing for a possible job action for several months. Orlowski said the hospital had a contract with a nurse staffing agency "for several million dollars" to provide replacement nurses.

Officials have also been telling the hospital nurses that any nurse who went out on strike would be out for five days, not one, because the hospital was obligated to pay the temporary nurses for a minimum of 60 hours of work. The hospital needs about 600 nurses a day to staff the hospital.

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