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Nurses at Washington Hospital Center Authorize Strike

Press Release Press Release, 2/16/11

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For Immediate Release
February 16, 2011

RNs Cite Management Stalling on Patient Safety Issues, Reveal Internal Memo Showing Widespread Staff Alarm

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Registered nurses at Washington Hospital Center have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a one-day strike, National Nurses United, the largest U.S. nurses union and professional association, announced today.

No date has been set for a walkout at the district’s biggest hospital with 1,650 RNs. The nurses’ vote, which occurred Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, authorizes the Facility Bargaining Council, comprising of nurse leaders from throughout the hospital, to call a one-day strike.

At the center of the dispute is what the nurses call the refusal of the hospital to address serious concerns about safe staffing and other patient care issues, a part of efforts by the MedStar Health, WHC’s parent company, to roll back care and economic standards.

NNU today cited a recently leaked internal survey of hospital employees conducted by the hospital last year that found a significant percentage of WHC employees believe the hospital is lacking in patient safety.  

WHC RNs also object to attempts to cut nurses’ pay and benefits. They also charge that the company violated federal labor law in implementing cuts in workplace and economic standards.  Unfair labor practice charges are pending before the National Labor Relations Board.  

“The nurses at Washington Hospital Center are fed up with management’s disrespect and its refusal to come to terms with us on the crucial issues of patient care and nursing standards,” said Sara Towald, a WHC RN.  “Management should listen to our warnings that its stance will cause a further deterioration of patient care at our hospital, drive away more experienced nurses, and burn out new nurses.”  

A delegation of nurses last week presented documentation of 103 instances of unsafe patient care since Oct. 1 to hospital management.  Nurses identified inadequate staffing as the cause of 86 instances, most of them in which the patients were severely ill. The incidents were rampant through the hospital, including cardiac care, critical care, general medical and surgical care, and women and infant services.

WHC RNs have been without a contract since last April. NNU has represented the nurses since Oct. 6, 2010.  A scheduled strike in November was averted when the hospital recognized the NNU as the nurses’ collective bargaining representative, agreed to start bargaining for a new contract, and delayed implementation of its planned unilateral pay cut for nurses who work evenings, nights, and weekends.  Multiple bargaining sessions have been conducted since then with minimal progress and several more are scheduled for later in February.

Nurses report a high turnover rate at the hospital due to RN dissatisfaction with patient safety and economic standards. Since 2005, 1,300 nurses have left WHC.  Although management reports that it has hired 500 new nurses, there was a net gain of only 100 nurses in 2010 and there are still 122 unfilled registered nurse positions in the hospital.

The deterioration of WHC’s relationship with its nurses and other caregivers was evident in the hospital’s internal survey from last spring and summer. Of 12 indicators of “patient safety culture” identified in the survey, not one was ranked as a “strength” by the 4,400 WHC participating employees. Areas identified as weak included staffing, hand offs and transitions, teamwork across units, and non-punitive response to error.   

In addition, Washington Hospital Center had the worst results of the eight MedStar Health hospitals surveyed and also compared unfavorably to the average of hundreds of hospitals around the country similarly surveyed.  The survey was designed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Copies of the survey results are available upon request.

Combined with its affiliate, the District of Columbia Nurses Association, the NNU represents close to 4,000 RNs in the nation’s capital, among 160,000 NNU members nationally.

NNU was founded in 2009 by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, United American Nurses, and Massachusetts Nurses Association.

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