"Traveling nurses are modern-day drifters," said Jeff Houska, one of about 80 nurses who have been brought in from around the country to work during the nurses' strike at Prince George's and Greater Laurel-Beltsville hospitals and the Bowie Health Center.
Houska, a nurse practitioner from South Dakota who works for a national nursing employment agency, has been assigned to the emergency room at Prince George's General Hospital in Cheverly, where the strike is in its 19th day.
Houska insists that he and most of his colleagues, often called "flying nurses," are not strikebreakers, but are in the business because the money is good and as one woman put it, because "it's a great way to see the country." Houska scoffed about being called a "professional scab," saying he has never before worked during a strike.
The striking nurses are angry about the presence of the traveling nurses. The Maryland Nurses Association has asked the state's attorney general to investigate whether the private nonprofit corporation, which operates the two hospitals and the Bowie Health Center under a contract with the Prince George's County government, is hiring nurses who have worked during other strikes, including one last winter in LaPlata in adjoining Charles County.
"Don't they have a conscience?" a picketing nurse asked as she watched one of the out-of-town nurses complete a morning jog and return to the hospital.
The substitute nurses, including a husband-and-wife team, have been dispatched to Maryland by several agencies, including Traveling Nurses and Circulating Nurses, both located in Massachusetts.
Representatives of those agencies declined to comment on their employment practices. The hospital corporation here is paying a weekly per-nurse fee to the agencies, in addition to travel expenses for the new workers.
Upon arrival, the out-of-state nurses must go to Baltimore to pay $10 for a 90-day state nursing license.
Houska and other "fly-ins" said their pay is based on their experience and according to the scale at the host hospital, which ranges here between $9 and $12 an hour. (The pay scale is one of the major issues in the negotiations, which are scheduled to be resumed today.) Several of the temporary nurses said they were offered $5 an hour above scale as an incentive to come here, but hospital officials denied this. Most of them also have been offered permanent positions, but Houska said few of them will stay on.
The imported nurses get free housing on the eighth floor at Prince George's General and the third floor at Laurel Hospital.
In Cheverly, the eighth floor has taken on a dormitory-like atmosphere, with window ledges adorned with hairdryers, toaster ovens, hot plates, clock radios and jars of instant coffee.
As the nurses greet each other, getting on and off the elevator in the lobby, they exchange reports or plans for off-duty tours of the nation's capital; beach trips and parties at nearby night spots.
"I'm providing a service," said Diane Corbin, 26, who came from Portland, Maine, to work in the intensive-care nursery at Prince George'e General. "There's got to be somebody taking care of the patients." Corbin said she is not bothered that she is working in place of striking nurses.
"It's an excellent education," said Corbin, who has worked for Circulating Nurses for two years, on assignments in Florida, New Mexico and Montana. But living in the noisy dorm is getting to her, so she is moving on after her two weeks end today.
There are other disadvantages, the traveling nurses said, including homesickness; chilly receptions from some regular staff members (and in this instance, strike sympathizers), and the bother of cashing out-of-state checks.
Houska, 33, said that he called his agency, Traveling Nurses in Malden, Mass., about two weeks ago, and was told there were openings at a hospital in Prince George's County, Md. The agency told him that there "was a potential labor problem" at the hospital, and he said he was a little uneasy upon learning of the strike, but signed a two-week contract with the hospital anyway.
"Nursing is always been kicked in the face and dictated to," Houska said, adding that "strikes get things ahead . . . If I could, I would be out there on my time off." But Houska, who said he is one of five male "fly-ins," doesn't think he'd be well received by the strikers.
Keith Billingsley, 35, a former magician and Arthur Murray dance instructor, said he became aware of the strike when he drove up from his home in Raleigh, N.C.
"I can empathize with the nurses," he said with a heavy drawl, but he added, "It's not a moral issue with me." Billingsley, a portly psychiatric nurse who was wearing a large silver Lone Star belt buckle from Texas, said that by working during the strike, he enables the hospital to meet its need to serve patients, thereby making it possible for nurses to continue striking.
He already is looking forward to his next assignment, at a hospital in Oakland, Calif., where nonmedical employes are on strike.
Houska's time is up today and he had not decided if he would renew for two more weeks. Houska already is looking forward to his next assignment, spending the winter at emergency stations at a Lake Tahoe ski resort.