Jane Badger used to put in long overtime hours in the emergency room to supplement her $15,000-a-year salary at Physicians Memorial in La Plata, Charles County's only hospital. Divorced and the mother of two young daughters, Badger was breadwinner, parent and student -- she was working on a bachelor's degree at Bowie State College.

Now, because of a labor dispute at the county-owned hospital, she and 62 other nurses are on strike. To make her $300 savings last, Badger has dropped out of school and cut her family's spending to the bone.

"The money will be gone by the end of the December. After that, I don't know what'll happen to us," she said last week. "But as long as management keeps trying to bust up this union, I'll stay out on strike."

Badger's anger--and her militant devotion to the nurses association--are new to this small, placid town 30 miles southeast of the District. But it is not unusual in nursing, where, as workers protest what they say are paltry wages and meager benefits, the picket lines and labor rallies that were unheard of a few years ago are more frequent.

"The strike is tearing this community apart. We're not all that used to controversy like this," said Eugene S. Burrows, a Catholic deacon whose congregation in nearby Waldorf includes striking and nonstriking nurses from the hospital.

On the eve of Thanksgiving Day, Burrows opened a candlelight vigil for the striking nurses with a prayer that called Physicians Memorial "a hospital of controversy and doubt."

"There is doubt that Your people who choose to serve are treated with justice," said Burrows, as 30-mile-an-hour gusts snuffed out candles held by the crowd huddled near the hospital. "We all want justice and peace restored to this institution," he said.

Peace may be a long time coming. Last week, after an eight-hour negotiating session, hospital officials and association members reported they were farther apart than ever.

The nurses are seeking a 10 percent cost of living increase and the reinstatement of annual 4 percent "step" raises. The management of the nonprofit corporation that runs the facility for Charles County is offering the hospital's 105 nurses a 5.4 percent cost of living increase and no restoration of the step raises. Hospital officials also want to trim the amount of leave the nurses take each year.

Talks have broken off more than once since Nov. 3, when the nurses walked out. A federal mediator has been called to the 112-bed hospital, which now has about 60 patients. No new negotiations are scheduled.

"It'll take a long time for the wounds caused by the strike to heal," said hospital administrator William L. Meyer. "Our barganing position is very tight, but we are willing to compromise with the association as long as the bargaining is in good faith."

Like many hospitals, Physicians Memorial is strapped for funds, he said. The nurses' demands for higher pay and the leave time they had accrued threatened to break the hospital's $12 million annual budget, which the county does not control, Meyer said. Supervisors and five nurses hired from outside Maryland are filling in for the striking nurses; many part-time workers now are working full time, Meyer added.

"Inside and outisde this hospital, people are divided over the strike. Emotions are running so high they are clouding the key issues, which are financial," said Meyer, who has run the facility for four years and whose resignation has been demanded by the all of the hospital's doctors. He said he has received several "derogatory" letters asking him to step down as adminsitrator.

"I want to work, and work at this hospital," said Rachel Havrilla, acting president of the independent Physicians Memorial Hospital Staff Nurses Association formed over four years ago, before Meyer's appointment. "But I won't go back if the conditions there haven't changed. I won't return to that."

Havrilla, a registered nurse who has worked in the hospital's intensive-care unit since 1975, said the strike has altered life for herself and her children, aged 6, 8 and 12.

"They haven't seen too much of me in the past three weeks, that's for sure," said Havrilla, who like many of the striking nurses wore her crisp white uniform to the candlelight service. "They really don't understand what's going on. They just know I'm not home a lot."

Badger's daughters, Catherine, 13, and Emily, 10, have dubbed her "The Phantom Mom" because of the time she spends picketing and organizing. Thanksgiving dinner last week was a turkey provided by the union; last weekend, Catherine had to miss a skating trip with her friends. "We just couldn't afford it," said Badger. "All we can do now is scrimp and save and hope we make it."

Badger and others said that although they voted to strike, they hoped at the same time to avert a walkout after the contract expired. "We could see it coming, but none of us wanted it to happen, really," Badger said. "One of the nurses' husbands lost his job the day we walked out. What is that family supposed to do now.?"

Of roughly 70 nurses who remained in the association after the 45-3 strike vote in October, all but seven have stayed on strike, strike leaders said.

Few townspeople have been overtly hostile to the strike, but a handful of nurses said they have been harassed by teen-agers yelling at them to return to work. Around La Plata, dozens of cars sport yellow ribbons or bright orange bumper stickers, reading "I Support PMH Nurses." Drivers honk their car horns as they cruise by the 'round-the-clock picket line, and strangers walk up to the nurses and press cash into their hands. Some folks donated boxes and bags of canned goods to the rally last week.

Said Burrows: "There is very little friction or animosity between the nurses on strike and those still working. I think they understand each other. The spike driven between them is the anguish over a local insitution that's floundering."

Some of those on strike remain demoralized by the less-than-thunderous response to the strike.

"It's reprehensible that this community doesn't really know what's going on," said Paul Dixon, whose wife, Helen Diane, has worked as a licensed praticing nurse at Physicians Memorial for the past seven years.

The St. Charles man said county residents "don't understand what a catastrophe the management has made of this hospital. They took the stress pay away and cut the leave time by 25 to 30 percent. Is that any way to treat professionals?"