About 130 people carrying flickering candles marched in front of Physicians Memorial Hospital here tonight to demonstrate support for nurses striking for higher pay and more leave.
A number of doctors from the hospital's staff were among the marchers, although the doctors have not joined the walkout and regularly cross the nurses' picket line, which went up last Wednesday.
By this evening there was still no sign of an agreement between the nurses' union and the hospital, the only one in Charles County. And the two sides were disagreeing about more than a contract.
The hospital administrator claims it has been running smoothly despite the strike. The strikers claim a greater effect, saying some services have been "compromised" by the walkout, the first since the hospital was chartered in 1939.
Not all the nurses are striking. The hospital says fewer than half of its complement of 100 went out, while the union, the independent Physicians Memorial Hospital Staff Nurses Association, claims 68 striking nurses, with some of those nonunion members.
Administrator William L. Meyer said nonstriking nurses working overtime, combined with a relatively low occupancy rate of 50 percent instead of the average 80 percent, have kept the 112-bed hospital running without major difficulties.
"The hospital has been fully staffed with the exception of the operating room since the beginning of the strike," Meyer said, adding that surgery resumed today for the first time since Wednesday.
Patricia Pfeiffer, one of the strikers, claims that emergency room service has been compromised and that doctors are asking that patients go elsewhere--to Southern Maryland Hospital in Clinton (the nearest, at 20 miles away), to Prince George's General in Cheverly or to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
Meyer said no patients have been turned away, but said there may have been cases in which rescue squads took patients requiring surgery elsewhere. On Saturday night, he said, three persons were killed and four injured in a two-car crash on nearby Rte. 6, and the hospital handled the injured before their conditions stabilized and they were flown to other hospitals.
Tonight's candlelight march included a brief prayer service. The strikers say the picketing -- by groups of 10 or so nurses, each wearing a yellow ribbon as a symbol of solidarity -- will go on.
The nurses' contract expired June 30 and federal mediators stepped in on July 7, but were unable to avert the strike.
The nurses say they want to retain yearly 4 percent "anniversary" raises plus 10 percent cost-of-living raises, both provided in their previous contract, according to Theresa Boone, a staff nurse who is the strikers' chief negotiator. The nurses say they also want the same amount of leave time that they were given last year -- 10 hours of leave for every two weeks of work for entry-level nurses.
The hospital proposed a blanket 5.2 percent increase; administrators also proposed reducing leave time by one hour for every two weeks.
Hospital administrator Meyer cites "economic realities" of lower revenues and higher expenses and contends that the nurses' pay demands are unreasonable and the leave time excessive.