- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Striking nurses at the Washington Hospital Center have been returning by the score over the past week, leaving their placards on the picket lines behind after holding out more than a month without pay or benefits.

Hospital officials say that about 180 of the approximately 1,200 striking nurses have returned to work. The D.C. Nurses Association, which is representing the nurses in contract talks, said about 10 percent have returned to their jobs.

"The realities of five weeks without pay is hurting a lot of people," said Vickie Houck, a lawyer with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and chief negotiator for the Washington Hospital Center.

A DCNA official conceded that the lack of benefits was taking a toll on many nurses.

"I talked with a nurse today that was quite pregnant," Karen Scipio-Skinner of the nurses association said. "She had to be there [at the hospital] for her health coverage."

The remaining striking nurses have banded together to keep their cause alive, helping each other out monetarily with the Needy Nurse Fund. It was created and maintained by the DCNA to help striking nurses pay for housing, food or other necessities.

The two sides have failed to reach a settlement since the strike began Sept. 20 after Washington Hospital nurses walked off their jobs demanding higher pay, an end to mandatory overtime and greater representation on hospital committees. As of yesterday, no new face-to-face negotiations were scheduled.

"We got to a point when things were going nowhere," Miss Houck said. "They say 'Got to have it.' We say 'Cannot do it.' "

The two major sticking points have been pay increases and mandatory overtime. Miss Houck said the hospital also was starting to feel the financial pinch of nearly five weeks of having to pay temporary contract nurses.

She said that is why the hospital has reduced its original pay proposal to the nurses from a 16.5 increase over three years to 13 percent over three years.

"We reached a point where we had to reduce our economic offering to the nurses. We're facing reality, that necessity begins to adversely affect the funds available for other hospital operations," Miss Houck said.

She said the nurses make up less than one quarter of the staff at the hospital. "And, we have to think about everybody, the wages and benefits of other hospital employees."

The hospital will not disclose how much it has spent to bring in temporary nurses.

"They are asking the nurses on strike to pay for the nurses keeping them out on strike," said Ms. Scipio-Skinner. "I just question how much it's cutting into the budget."

The hospital also has proposed one shift of mandatory overtime in a 12-week period for all non-critical units, while it offered a maximum of four mandatory overtime shifts in a six-week period of specialized or more critical units, such as the operating room.

"They want a more severe restriction than that," Miss Houck said.

The hospital also has offered a bonus of 40 percent of hourly pay in addition to time-and-a-half for working mandatory overtime.

"We have a strong economic disincentive to require nurses to work overtime," Miss Houck said. "We would most certainly prefer to be able to hire other people, but we're faced with the realities of the marketplace."

Gwen Johnson, spokeswoman for the union portion of DCNA, said it's not the frequency of overtime, it's the number of hours of overtime they are required to work, that is at issue.

Ms. Johnson said the nurses could go to other hospitals where she believe they would be treated better.

"But [the striking nurses] are committed to the patients at Washington Hospital Center," she said.

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