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Washington Hospital Center nurses launch 24-hour strike

By Lena H. Sun and Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 5, 2011; B01

Almost a year of rancorous contract talks came to a head Friday when several hundred nurses at Washington Hospital Center, the region's largest hospital, walked off the job for a 24-hour strike.

To help care for patients, hospital officials flew in 600 temporary nurses from around the country, housed them in area hotels and bused them to the Northwest Washington facility. The hospital also began a media campaign with print and radio advertisements in which it promised to keep the facility fully staffed and operating as usual through the weekend and into next week.

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

As of Friday afternoon, there were no public indications that either side was willing to make concessions necessary to resolve the dispute.

The strike was scheduled to end by 7 a.m. Saturday, but the union will continue to picket if the hospital follows through with its promise to lock out striking nurses until Wednesday. Hospital officials said striking nurses would not be paid or allowed back to work until then.

"They can't come back to work," said hospital spokeswoman So Young Pak.

The hospital says it is obligated to pay the temporary nurses for a minimum of 60 hours of work.

Union officials say the lockout is punitive and that nurses are ready to return to work Saturday. "They're taking a one-day protest and making it into a five-day war," said Ken Zinn, a union official.

Striking nurses held picket signs and chanted slogans outside the hospital complex at First and Irving streets NW. They wore sweat shirts, hats, gloves and scrubs - all red, the trademark color of National Nurses United, which represents the hospital center's 1,600 nurses and is the country's largest nurses union.

At a noon rally, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said nurses were the difference between a patient's recovery or non-recovery. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) linked the job action to pro-union protests across the country. D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said the dispute was a local issue and urged a speedy resolution.

Hospital officials said the strike did not disrupt operations at the 926-bed facility. By late Friday afternoon, the hospital had admitted 732 inpatients, had 151 emergency room visits and delivered nine babies - a typical Friday, officials said.

About 300 nurses are needed for each day and night shift. Two-thirds of the nurses scheduled to work the first shift Friday - about 200 - crossed picket lines and reported for duty, hospital officials said. The union said it could not confirm that number.

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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