Did layoffs force negotiations at Washington Hospital Center?

Ben Fischer, Washington Business Journal, May 4, 2011

Washington Hospital Center and its nurses union reached a tentatively deal in a flurry of negotiating this week after making little progress for months.

For months, National Nurses United and Washington Hospital Center battled for the hearts and minds of the District, waging a costly public fight over their stalled contract talks. But behind the scenes, very little negotiating was happening, with only a few formal bargaining sessions a month.

But late last week, that all changed. The union reached out, and a long day of talks on Monday yielded an agreement in principle, followed by finalized language on Tuesday. The union's nearly 1,700 members will vote to ratify this weekend.

What happened? What suddenly kicked everyone into high gear? We might naturally look to the hospital's decision April 26 to lay off 200 workers, a reduction in force that starkly underscored the hospital's financial challenges and might have abruptly changed the dynamics around the work place.

Not the case, said lead union spokesman Ken Zinn. “Honestly, I don't think the layoffs had hardly any influence at all," Zinn said. It was simply time to get a deal done, he said.

Hospital Chief Medical Officer Janis Orlowski thinks the layoffs might have had an effect. “They didn’t say to us, we’re going to do this because of the [layoffs], but certainly the timing suggests there was some reason or some push that they sat down and talked to us,” Orlowski said.

The same union also reached a deal with a Maine hospital after a long dispute last week.

Whatever the reason, the apparent end to the bitter labor dispute is a relief for both sides. Assuming members ratify the deal, the hospital will have a new contract in time to write a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Neither side would disclose details of the deal before the membership vote, but Orlowski said the deal puts nurses at the "top of the market" in pay and benefits and "the structure of the agreement is what we needed to do financially."

She wouldn't elaborate, but that apparently references the hospital's insistence that nurses who work less desirable shifts get flat hourly rate bonuses, rather than a percentage of base salary. Hospital officials said that change, which resulted in pay cuts for many nurses, is crucial to its long-term stability. No word yet on what the hospital had to give up in exchange.

Zinn declined comment on the substance of the deal. "We have an agreement with them, we'll keep our agreement to not disclose the details of the agreement" until after the vote), Zinn said.

benfischer@bizjournals.com or 703.258.0828.