- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

Officials at Inova Health System and its non-unionized nurses are trying to settle labor issues in the board room instead of on the picket lines, at a time when such disputes have led to strikes at other hospitals.

"Our hope is to demonstrate to the rest of the country how an organization should be so you're not consuming your energy in reacting to a crisis," said Jolene Tornabeni executive vice president and chief operating officer of Inova Health System, the parent company for the five Inova hospitals in the region.

Ms. Tornabeni, also a nurse, is making sure her nurses communicate with management, and that they are happy, so they never need to walk out.

Management and nurse executives at Inova Fairfax, Inova Mount Vernon, Inova Alexandria, and Inova Fair Oaks hospitals, say they have created a three-year plan to improve working conditions for nurses, giving them a greater voice in hospital matters.

"This is the leadership's honest humble approach," said Susan Herbert, vice president and administrator for the nurses at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. "We don't have all the answers."

The first stage of the plan took place last week with a full-day meeting between about 200 nurses and management at Inova Fairfax to discuss labor issues like working conditions and overtime.

Hospital officials hope that better communication with the nurses will prevent labor actions like the one at the Washington Hospital Center. Nurses there have been on strike for nearly six weeks demanding better pay and working conditions and an end to forced overtime.

Union officials say, however, that nurses need outside help to get their issues handled.

Gwen Johnson, spokeswoman for the union portion of the D.C. Nurses Association representing the striking WHC nurses, said unions are more effective than unmediated meetings between nurses and hospital management.

"The best way to achieve justice in the workplace and to have a fair participation in decision-making is through a collective bargaining agreement," she said.

That's the last thing Inova wants.

"I think it's a lot better to do things upfront before the staff yields to a third party," said Ms. Tornabeni. "Once you have a union and a contract in place, you lose the ability to hear the voices of the people," she said.

At the meeting, the nurses talked about older nurses mentoring younger ones, improving orientation and recruitment. Nurses also talked about how to attract more men to the profession, which is dominated by women.

Retention is still an issue because disgruntled nurses leaving is causing the false image that there is a shortage, officials said.

"We're trying to stop the tide," said Karen Drenkard, the chief nurse executive for Inova Fairfax Hospital. "So, it's up to us to become retention officers."

Cindy Price, spokeswoman for the American Nursing Association said hospitals are inventing this "nursing shortage" to force their nurses into mandatory overtime. "That works to their advantage because they can force nurses to work overtime and pay fewer benefits," Ms. Price said.

With the variety of opportunities available to women these days, the nursing profession is losing recruits, according to a study by Vanderbilt University School of Nursing based on information from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

"I have a fear of what the future is going to be," said Patricia Pollack, a nurse at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

Mrs. Pollack has only been a nurse since June. However, she can already see the profession deteriorating at most hospitals with larger patient loads, longer hours and ultimately patient care compromised.

One of the main issues, according to the striking nurses at WHC, is the threat of deteriorating patient care because nurses are forced to work mandatory overtime.

At Inova hospitals, the nurses are not required to work mandatory overtime, and they recently earned a 7 percent raise, hospital officials said.

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