The quality of patient care at D.C. General Hospital has been endangered by "woefully" understaffed units and inadequate pay and benefits, members of the nurses' union there claimed yesterday.

Nurses at D.C. General, the District's main public hospital, have been in contract negotiations with the city government since April. The District of Columbia Nurses' Association, which represents about 190 of the 325 registered nurses employed there, is seeking a three-year contract that would increase a pay and benefits package by 40 percent.

The union claimed that there are 75 to 100 registered nursing vacancies at the hospital and that the $26,000 average annual salary for registered nurses is far too low to woo nurses from private hospitals.

Beverly Freeman-Owen, president of the union local, said, "Nurses don't want to shortchange any patient, but we are woefully understaffed. Hospital management and the {D.C. General Hospital} Commission have failed to come up with a concrete plan for solving the serious staffing problems. We wonder if anyone cares."

The nurses held a demonstration and a news conference yesterday at the hospital to coincide with a closed meeting of the hospital commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Marion Barry but which has a large portion of autonomy in personnel relations.

Because its members could not attend the meeting, the union submitted a written statement to the commission that detailed recent incidents in the hospital's nursery, emergency room and other units in which they said staff shortages prevented nurses from delivering proper care to patients.

At the beginning of one recent nursery shift, the union said, six of nine infants in intensive care were on respirators. Also, there were 12 infants, including one on a respirator, in the unit's transitional nursery, and 24 infants required normal care.

Although industry standards call for infants on respirators to receive one-on-one care, the intensive care staff was short three registered nurses when the shift began, union officials said.

Benay Johnson, 27, a clinical nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, said, "Any given day you walk in and it's 10 to 16 babies" per nurse, whereas other area hospitals generally have one nurse for every four infants. "If you're lucky, if you're blessed, you'll have two nurses," she said.

The nurses also said the emergency room is inadequately staffed to handle its patient population,which includes unruly PCP abusers, inmates at neighboring D.C. Jail and patients with behavior disorders.

Citing average registered nurses' salaries of $33,000 a year at Howard University Hospital and $30,000 at Washington Hospital Center, union members said the problems at D.C. General stem from an uncompetitive pay scale.

"The patients come first," Johnson said, "but you can't take care of the patients without getting the nurses. And the only way to get the nurses is to raise the salaries."

Dr. John Dandridge Jr., the hospital medical director and a commission member, declined to comment when reached at his residence last night. Ann Mitchell, public affairs director at the hospital, said that the number of nurse vacancies "is somewhere under 100" but said D.C. General is looking at other ways to resolve staffing problems. Mitchell said it is hospital policy not to comment about negotiations with any of its unions while they are in process.

But Freeman-Owen, assistant head of the pediatric nursing staff, said that discussion of issues is needed now. "What we're talking about is the nursing shortage," she said. "We attribute the nursing shortage to the low pay here."