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Hospital, union brace for nurses' strike

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:04 PM

Managers at Washington Hospital Center and the nurses union are bracing for a planned strike Friday at the region's largest hospital, with managers flying in replacement nurses from all across the country and nurses seeking support from city officials.

The nurses' contract expired last spring, and the two sides have been engaged in a rancorous dispute over wages, benefits, staffing and patient safety. The union represents about 1,600 nurses.

If a strike takes place, the 926-bed hospital will be fully staffed, with all units open, according to an e-mail sent to hospital physicians Wednesday by Janis Orlowski, the chief medical officer at the facility. "Rumors circulating throughout the house that we are preparing to close patient care units during the planned National Nurses United (NNU) strike are absolutely false."

The job action is supposed to last a day, from 7 a.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday. But hospital officials said they will lock out striking nurses for five days, meaning that they will not be allowed back to work until Wednesday and will not get paid for those days. Hospital officials said they are doing so because they are obligated to pay 600 replacement nurses for a minimum of 60 hours of work, typically five 12-hour shifts.

In addition, managers have told nurses that they must check in - in person - at the hospital Friday and inform supervisors whether they plan to work their scheduled shifts. That includes nurses who have Friday off.

"If you're scheduled to work and do not check in, we will assume you are on the picket line," said hospital spokeswoman So Young Pak.

Nurses who don't do so will have their identification badges deactivated, she said. That, in turn, will not let nurses access free parking in the garage, a move the union claims is aimed at discouraging nurses from participating in the strike.

It is not clear how many nurses will be picketing. A scheduled strike in November was averted at the last minute when the two sides agreed to resume bargaining. A significant change by either side could produce the same result this time around.

Some junior nurses are reluctant to participate because they will not be as hard-hit by a proposal to cut shift pay for evenings, nights and weekends, according to senior nurses. But nurses who work permanent night shifts are expected to take part in large numbers, they said.

At the same time, recent hospital announcements have angered nurses, especially the requirement for them to check in this Friday. "That's ridiculous," said one nurse, noting that some of her colleagues have commutes of up to two hours.

Many nurses are confused about what to do, she said. "I really have mixed feelings," said the nurse, who has more than 20 years of experience at the hospital. She did not want to give her name or identify her unit for fear of retaliation from both sides.

She was among the nurses at the hospital center who went on strike for six weeks in 2000. But the economic situation was different then, she said, and nurses found temporary jobs. That no longer holds true, she said.

She is also unsure what the union will gain by the job action.

Executives at the hospital have said that they are under enormous pressure to trim costs. Admissions at the hospital are down, as they are elsewhere. Last fall, the hospital forced through a wage plan that provided some pay increase but cut shift pay and put a new benefits package in place that takes away union input.

Both sides agree that the most recent round of talks has not been productive, although they disagree on which issues are the thorniest.

The hospital says the nurses lead the market in salary and benefits, with entry-level nurses earning about $57,000 a year and experienced nurses earning about $98,000 a year. The union says average pay is about $37 an hour, so a typical 36-hour workweek means about $70,000 a year.

The nurses complain of understaffing and say the contract dispute has accelerated turnover. They also note that they care for the sickest patients in the region.

In the past week, the union has sought support from city officials, clergy and other labor unions. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is scheduled to give the keynote speech at noon Friday. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he spoke with Kenneth A. Samet, chief executive of MedStar Health, which owns and operates Washington Hospital Center, and called for a speedy resolution to the dispute. Ten D.C. Council members have also urged the same, and at least one council member, Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) plans to stop by the picketing site, a spokeswoman said.

At an interfaith clergy breakfast Wednesday at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, union representatives asked church leaders for support, noting that many of their congregants had been tended by Washington Hospital Center's nurses. Many may have had their babies delivered by veteran nurse Vicki Carroll, 49.

"I love my job," she told them. "I can't do it for free."

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