Nurses at the Washington Hospital Center are chanting that their strike against the hospital is not about the money. But division between the union and the hospital, so far, has been mostly about the money.
“We are multimillion dollars apart in terms of wages,” said Vickie Houck, attorney for Morgan Lewis & Bockius, the Washington Hospital Center’s negotiator. “Salary is a major issue dividing the parties.”
When the nurses began striking Sept. 20, they were asking for a 22 percent to 28 percent pay increase over three years, as well as an end to mandatory overtime, lower patient-to-nurse ratios and more representation on hospital patient-care committees.
“We’ve made clear to management time and time again that every issue is still on the table,” said Gwendylon Johnson, spokeswoman for the D.C. Nurses Association union. “For them it may be about money, for us it is about working conditions.”
Five days later, on Sept. 25, the nurses modified their salary demands to a 16 percent to 18 percent wage increase over three years for the average nurse.
Despite the apparent concession, the two sides remain far apart on the money issue. They planned to meet last Saturday to try to bridge their differences on money.
“We do take comfort in knowing the union has started to come down to Earth,” Ms. Houck said.
But the hospital, whose original proposal gave the nurses a 16* percent increase over that period, found the proposal impossible to accept because the nurses wanted the increase up front, rather than spaced out over the three-year contract.
Ms. Houck said giving money up front would put the hospital outside of its budget.
“We wanted to cost out their proposal, but their proposal is unacceptable,” said Lisa Wyatt, vice president of public affairs at Washington Hospital Center.
The union’s three-year wage proposal requests that the senior nurses receive an 18 percent raise over three years, while the junior nurses would get a 16 percent raise over three years. The senior nurses would get a pay raise of 10 percent in the first year, while the junior nurses get an increase of 8 percent that year.
For the remaining two years of the contract, both the senior and junior nursing staff get 4 percent wage increases each year.
“It would definitely compromise our financial vitality because we’re making less than 4 percent profit and we’re at capacity,” Ms. Wyatt said.
Under the nurses’ proposal, because the hospital would exhaust a lot of money in the first year with raises, the hospital said it would eventually have fewer bargaining chips when it wanted to hire new nurses.
The nurses’ wage increase proposal that pays the nurses up front, would leave the hospital unable to offer any more than $18 an hour for new nurses coming in until 2003, Ms. Houck said.
“We have to be able to increase our hiring rate,” she added.
But union officials said getting nurses isn’t the problem.
“Recruiting has not been as much of an issue,” Ms. Johnson said. “They are getting nurses in; the problem is the nurses are not staying.”
Ms. Johnson said the working conditions are driving those nurses away.
The hospital’s last proposal, on the other hand, would give all nurses a 5 percent increase in the first year. In the second year, it would give nurses a 4 percent wage increase along with a bonus of 21/2 percent of a nurse’s entire gross earnings from the previous year.
“We knew from the beginning that it wasn’t a 16* percent package,” Ms. Johnson said.
The hospital spends $68 million to pay its nurses over three years. The hospital’s proposed wage increase for the nurses would tack on another $25.5 million to that budget.
The nurses’ proposal, on the other hand, would add $35.6 million over three years.
“We gave them a set of proposals, and they left without providing us a formal response,” Ms. Johnson said. “Management needs to understand that negotiation requires movement on the part of both parties towards one common goal the delivery of safe quality patient care.”