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VA nurses protest work conditions

The Augusta Chronicle, 8/31/10

By Tom Corwin
The Augusta Chronicle
August 31, 2010

Fed up with what they say are forced 16-hour shifts and inadequate staffing, some registered nurses at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center are planning an informational picket Sept. 8.

Augusta VA Director Rebecca J. Wiley said the facility has added RNs and is trying to work with them on staffing levels.

Because federal workers aren't allowed to strike, the picket is their only recourse for protest, said Irma Westmoreland, the acting president of the National Nurses United National VA Council and the president of Local 509.

The Augusta facility is running an $8 million deficit, she said, and is trying to limp to the new budget year on Oct. 1 by slowing hiring.

"They're thinking they can balance the budget by not hiring RNs because their salary is high," Westmoreland said. "But it is not that high."

While the budget changes depending on different types of funding, there will not be a deficit when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, Wiley said.

Because of inadequate staffing, VA officials are forcing some nurses into 16-hour shifts when there is a gap, even though federal law prohibits it except in an emergency, Westmoreland said.

These gaps are known weeks in advance, however, she said.

"People get tired and there is more chance of harm to the patient for every hour you work over 12 (hours)," Westmoreland said. "Our nurses are committed to the veteran patient. We are committed to doing a good job. But we can't with all of the numbers of things they are asking us to do with the amount of patients we have."

Management has been meeting with the nurses and the union for the past few weeks to address issues of staffing and scheduling, Wiley said.

Westmoreland said the RN shortage is particularly bad on the inpatient wards and at times there have been only two RNs to care for 30 patients.

Wiley said both sides want the same thing and are working toward the same goal. "Quality patient care and safety are at the forefront," she said. "It's our mission to serve veterans here, and I think that is both the intent of management and of our union, that is without saying."

Still, the RNs are upset enough that they went through the formal steps to get leave approved to carry out the protest.

"They're saying we have enough nurses and we're saying we don't. We want to have enough nurses to take care of our patients adequately," Westmoreland said.

Wiley, however, said she has worked to ensure nurse pay and benefits are up to community standards and will continue working with them.

"I believe in transparency with our information and working collaboratively with our union," she said.

"I value nurses and the impact that nurses have on our patient care," Wiley said.

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