Valerie Hall, a nurse for 14 years, says that working at D.C. General Hospital is the toughest job she's ever had. Often short-staffed and poorly equipped, the public hospital handles the city's neediest patients: the mentally ill and retarded, the homeless, the city's prison population, and the poor.

"We take care of the people that nobody else wants. The street people with no medical history . . . the alcoholics, the violent patients, the people who don't come to the doctor until they've got a tumor the size of a football," said Hall, 35, a registered nurse in the operating room.

Hall, who earns $24,300 a year, is one of 400 District government nurses locked in a difficult 11-month-old contract dispute with the Barry administration. The impasse is to be resolved by an impartial arbitration hearing starting May 13 in what will be the first round of binding arbitration ever conducted in city labor negotiations.

"We like the work, and we want to work here. But we deserve more for the work we do," she said.

The nurses contend that they have been historically underpaid for the skill and training required in a demanding job. They say the prime issue is "pay equity," and they argue that nursing -- because it is a female-dominated job -- is wrongly paid less than male-dominated jobs such as auto mechanics or carpentry.

The D.C. government contends that the issue is not the so-called "comparable worth" of male- and female-dominated jobs, but rather the unrealistic demand by the D.C. Nurses Association, which wants larger pay raises than those already accepted by 15,000 other city workers.

"We want to be consistent with our pattern of wage settlements. A pattern has been set," said Donald H. Weinberg, chief of the D.C. Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining. He was referring to the three-year contract accepted last fall by five other white-collar and blue-collar unions.

The base pay for nurses working at D.C General and at Department of Human Services health facilities is $9.63 an hour or $20,022 yearly. DCNA said its members' pay should be higher than auto mechanics, electricians or heavy-equipment operators, who start at $10.61 or $22,069. Maximum pay for nurses is $14.20 hourly or $29,537 a year, a level that takes 19 years to reach.

Registered nurses, who receive two to four years of nursing education, contend that those male-dominated jobs require less skill and education, but are paid higher because they are male-dominated categories.

Weinberg said there is no evidence of sex discrimination in city pay scales. He said pay has been based largely on supply and demand, pointing out that when there was a severe shortage of nursing applicants five years ago, the city offered 12 percent pay raises, while other workers received far less.

"The city recognized the need for higher pay at that time, based on the shortage, but the situation is different now," he said.

The city's master contract with five major unions calls for a first-year bonus of $500 or 3 percent of base pay. It provides raises of 3.5 and 4 percent in the next two years, and a 1.5 percent raise at the end of the three-year term.

"We felt that was a crummy deal and we were being held hostage to something the larger unions negotiated," said Mary Joyce Carlson, DCNA lawyer and negotiator. The first-year bonus is not included in figuring the second-year pay raise, and therefore is "almost a pay freeze," she said.

"Our nurses are the primary deliverers of health care to the poorer women and children of this city," Carlson said. "Auto mechanics take care of the city's equipment, and we take care of the city's future."

The city, which is also facing binding arbitration with the 3,300-member Fraternal Order of Police, is concerned that if individual unions can achieve a better deal than the master contract, it will jeopardize the city's future ability to control wage levels in future bargaining.

Under the city's collective bargaining law, which has never before resulted in arbitration, each side presents a "last best offer" to the arbitrator, who does not compromise but rather picks one or the other as the settlement. This technique is increasingly popular in bargaining as a means of moderating each side's demands. Neither the city nor the nurses would discuss their final offers.