- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

Gina and Rebecca have nearly every minute together for the past six weeks. They both work in the neonatal intensive care unit at Washington Hospital Center for 12 hours during the day, and are roommates at night.

But they are about to go their separate ways. Both will return to Chicago, their hometown, to their own families and their own homes, as the striking Washington Hospital Center nurses who were on the picket lines since Sept. 20 return to work today.

The two women agreed to talk with The Washington Times about their experiences during the strike on the condition that their real names not be used.

In fact, all of the 700 replacement nurses from U.S. Nursing Corp. in Denver, shipped from across the country to cover for the 1,200 nurses during the strike, are leaving.

Gina and Rebecca will likely meet up again in another city. As a specialist neonatal nurse, Rebecca said she often sees the same people during labor disputes. Still she prefers this lifestyle to the restrictive ways of a full-time hospital nurse.

"I don't like the restraints. I like the autonomy and I've seen a lot of America for free," Rebecca said.

Gina and Rebecca are both in their 30s. The U.S. Nursing Corp. requires at least two years' experience in a hospital setting, but most nurses have more and are specialized.

Rebecca earns 30 to 40 percent more at the agency than what she said she would at a hospital as a full-time regular nurse. Salaries average between $50,000 to $65,000 annually for nurses with about four years experience.

Gina and Rebecca met in Eco County Hospital in Chicago. Gina has been a nurse for 18 years, and Rebecca has about 10 years under her belt, six of those years as an agency nurse.

"You have to be willing to accept change and be very flexible," Rebecca said. "You have to have your support system intact and business at home taken care of."

Rebecca likes the money with U.S. Nursing Corp., though she likes the freedom even more. Nurses can refuse assignments or even leave them during lengthy disputes.

"If you see there's no room for growth, the alternative is to change the institution or move around," she said.

Neither faced any direct harassment from Washington Hospital nurses, but the hostility among the nurses was evident. "We get a bad rap because there's so much anger around the dispute," Gina said. "We're replacement nurses there to care for their patients."

On any given day, while the two women are still filling IVs at nearly 8 p.m., Cristol Primas, a union nurse at Howard University Hospital, has long gone home.

Ms. Primas has had 14 years of experience as a nurse at Howard where she started and plans to finish her career.

She was an agency nurse for several years before joining Howard full time.

She preferred the security of a full-time job to the uncertainty of agency work.

"The grass isn't greener," Ms. Primas said about agency nursing.

Despite stringent hospital policies, full-time nurses don't have to shop around for health care and figure out how much money to deduct for taxes, she said. As for the freedom in scheduling as an agency nurse, Ms. Primas said with her seniority, that isn't a problem.

Ms. Primas said the union nurses are not as angry at the replacement nurses as they are at the fact that the hospital pays those nurses more than they do the union nurses.

"You can pay this nurse $5,000 per week to take care of a patient that you made me walk out on?" Ms. Primas asked. "You could let me walk out on the street and allow her to make two times what I make?"

Gina said she, however, could be making about six figures in the county hospital in Chicago, working fewer hours, with her Masters degree in public administration. But, like Rebecca, Gina said she could not put a price on freedom, freedom she believes she cannot get in a hospital.

"I was unsatisfied where I was, and there was no chance for expansion," Rebecca said. "Instead of me trying to make reforms, I removed myself from the element."

When she's not on the road, Gina, like many of the temporary agency nurses, works at the local county hospital in Chicago on a per diem status.

Both Gina and Rebecca said they would never go back to the hospital as regular nurses. "There hasn't been a day when I haven't learned something new," Gina said.

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