- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

About 1,500 nurses from Washington Hospital Center began striking yesterday for better working conditions after talks between the D.C. Nurses Association and the hospital's management ended in a stalemate late Tuesday night.
Scores of striking nurses converged at the entrance to the hospital early yesterday chanting, "Patients beware, management is giving care."
Meanwhile, the hospital halls were nearly deserted, with random carts unattended, brooms fallen and corridors unwatched except by cameras and temporary nurses in clean blue uniforms not knowing how to get in and out of the hospital.
But, there were no reported problems, according to Dr. James Howard, medical director at Washington Hospital Center. And, the 500 seemingly disoriented and anxious replacement nurses will remain until an agreement is reached, Dr. Howard said.
The nurses said they were prepared for a prolonged strike.
"We will be back here tomorrow, and we'll be back as long as it takes," said Evelyn Sommers, executive director of the D.C. Nurses Association.
The nurses are asking for a 22 percent to 28 percent raise, an end to mandatory overtime, lower patient-to-nurse ratios and representation on hospital committees regarding patient care.
"Clearly when nurses are overly tired, they are more apt to make mistakes," explained Ms. Sommers.
Hospital officials earlier offered the nurses a plan for no more than two overtime shifts per nurse every six weeks, which the nurses said was not enough.
The hospital has offered the nurses a 16.5 percent raise over three years a pay and benefits packages averaging about $70,000 per nurse calling it a "final offer."
But the nurses said the offer was not enough.
"They still are asking for at least 22 [percent]. When they say it ain't the money, it's the money," Dr. Howard said of the nurses.
Dr. Howard defended the hospital's nurse-patient ratios and said that an industry-wide nursing shortage leaves it with little latitude in easing mandatory overtime.
Contract talks are on hold. But Dr. Howard said, "We're ready to go back to the table when they're ready for some substantive negotiations."
Dr. Howard, meanwhile, said nurses are already on committees such as the equal employment opportunity panel, the subcommittee on professional practice, labor management, safety, education grant, and the workplace violence assessment committees.
"We've really come a long way toward their goals, but it's unrealistic to do it all," he said.
Greg Buchheister, a 17-year veteran nurse, was out on the picket line to tell the hospital that it's not about the money, but about an inequity.
"We've had about two decades of wage freezes," he said.
Mr. Buchheister said he's received only a 5 percent raise over the past 3 years.
Dr. Howard said the 500 temporary nurses replacing the staff nurses that are on strike have been doing well, with no problems reported.
"This day has gone without any problems," Dr. Howard said.
Dr. Howard would not say what agency the hospital used to hire the replacement nurses, adding only that it is "expensive but worth it."
Union officials say one reason for the nurse shortage is that many are finding it more lucrative to work as a replacement nurse during strikes than work full time.

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