Washington Hospital Center, union brace for nurses' strike

Nurse Vicki Carroll talks to Ken Zinn at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, where she sought support for the strike.
Nurse Vicki Carroll talks to Ken Zinn at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, where she sought support for the strike. (Juana Arias)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011

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 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.

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