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Washington Hospital Center nurses launch 24-hour strike

Nurses at Washington Hospital Center launch strike after nearly a year of contentious contract talks.

Many temporary nurses were scrambling to get licensed this week. The D.C. Department of Health licensed 126 nurses Wednesday and Thursday, many of them hired by the hospital center, a department spokeswoman said.

Sarah Zuercher, 35, an emergency department nurse with one year of experience, said she was protesting wage cuts that would hurt senior nurses more than junior ones. "Unless we take a stand to maintain standards, the hospital is going to lose a lot of experienced nurses," she said.

That is especially true in the emergency room, the entry point for very sick patients and complex cases, she said. One recent patient was walking and talking but breathing very fast. The woman turned out to have a clot in her lungs that required quick intervention on multiple fronts.

"The first thing I did was to go and get a 20-year nurse," she said.

A scheduled strike in November was averted at the last minute when the two sides agreed to resume bargaining.

On wages, the hospital wanted to impose a plan last fall that would have 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 would mean a cut of $2,000 to $20,000 a year, union officials said.

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.

On staffing, the hospital has said it is committed to the strongest nurse staffing models and has hired several hundred nurses during the past year. But the union says the hospital's actions are not enough to address high turnover.

The union has said that unsafe staffing levels have jeopardized patient safety, a charge hospital officials have denied.

The hospital relies on nurse-patient ratio guidelines that vary by unit and time of day. Nurses say their units are not always able to provide enough nurses to meet those guidelines.

The hospital, which is owned and operated by Columbia-based MedStar Health, has accused the union of being motivated by political goals. The national union has employed an aggressive strategy, organizing strikes or threatening to call them at hospitals across the country. The Oakland, Calif.-based union has tapped into concerns of registered nurses worried about losing jobs at a time when hospitals and health-care organizations are under enormous pressure to cut costs.

The union, in turn, has tried to portray the hospital as part of a large conglomerate that puts profits ahead of patients.

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