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Nurses' strike cost Washington Hospital Center $6 million

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 7:43 PM

Washington Hospital Center spent about $6 million to hire 600 temporary nurses, beef up security and cover other costs during last week's nurses' strike and subsequent lockout at the region's largest hospital, hospital officials said.

Janis Orlowski, the hospital's chief medical officer, also said that more than 500 of the facility's 1,600 nurses crossed the picket line during Friday's strike. Ken Zinn, a spokesman for National Nurses United, which represents the nurses, said he could not confirm the hospital's figures but thought they were inflated.

Union officials say more than 1,000 nurses took part in last week's job action.

The nurses walked off the job for a one-day strike but were locked out by the hospital from Saturday until Wednesday, when they started returning about 5 a.m., hospital spokeswoman So Young Pak said.

Except for a small fire Tuesday from a paper shredder that overheated and forced "a small number" of patients on one unit to be temporarily relocated, the return was "smooth and peaceful," with no reports of disruption in patient care or nursing routines, she said. There was no drop in business between Friday and Wednesday, she said.

Now that the nurses have returned, officials are asking that staff "put their differences behind them in an effort to preserve a health and healing environment that ensures patient safety," the hospital said in statement this week. President John Sullivan sent an e-mail warning employees that harassment of any person "for their decision to strike or not to strike" would not be tolerated.

Each side says it is committed to reaching agreement on a contract for the nurses, who have been without one for almost a year. The two sides have been engaged in a bitter dispute over wages, benefits, staffing and patient safety at the 926-bed hospital.

There were no public indications Thursday that a return to bargaining was imminent.

It cost the hospital about $3.5 million to hire the temporary nurses and cover their transportation and lodging; an additional $1.5 million in salaries for the staff nurses who crossed the picket line on Friday; and $1 million more for increased security and other costs, Orlowski said. The hospital ran a media campaign with print and radio advertisements in which it promised to keep the facility fully staffed and operating as usual.

Orlowski said 184 nurses, or about 62 percent of those scheduled to work Friday's day shift, crossed the picket line. But few nurses reported to work for Friday's night shift, and even fewer by Saturday night, when the hospital was relying almost exclusively on temporary nurses, she said.

She said that more than 500 nurses crossed the picket lines, but officials declined to provide specific breakdowns beyond Friday's day shift.

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