Nurses union ratifies contract with Washington Hospital Center

Ben Fischer, Washington Business Journal, May 9, 2011

Members of National Nurses United ratified a new labor contract with Washington Hospital Center on Saturday, officially ending more than a year of bitter feuding at the region's largest privately owned medical center.

The core dispute - changes to how wage bonuses for less desirable night and weekend shifts are calculated - was settled with a classic compromise. The hospital won the right to implement the changes permanently; the union won a 30-month hold-harmless period for its workers.

In a bid to control long-term payroll cost pressures, the hospital in March switched the bonuses from a percentage of base salary to flat dollar amounts, which effectively cut wages for many nurses. Under the deal, any nurse whose hourly wage decreased by more than 10 cents in the new scheme will get the difference back every quarter until November 2013.

After 30 months, the bonuses will discontinue. The hold-harmless period only applies to current nurses.

Janis Orlowski, chief medical officer for the hospital, said the wage differentials were changed for long-term strategic purposes, so management was prepared to help the nurses "ease into" the new structure.

Ultimately, 93 percent of the union members who voted supported the deal. But chief union negotiator Bill Cruice called it the 30-month deal a necessary compromise, and predicted a recruitment problem for the hospital center because of the differntial changes.

"We're not thrilled about that," Cruice said. "We think it's a mistake on the part of (hospital owner) MedStar Health."

Nurses will receive annual base wage hikes of between 1.5 percent and 2.25 percent throughout the life of the 42-month contract, as well as an across-the-board 1.5 percent boost in the final year.

An entry level nurse could expect his or her salary to go up from $57,554 today to nearly $62,734 over the course of the contract; a mid-level registered nurse could see a boost from $76,502 today to $83,387 in 2014.

Also in the deal, nurses won new staffing protocols that will increase the number of nurses working directly with patients, and a new committee to regularly address staffing issues and patient care. Cruice said the new model will require Washington Hospital Center to hire hundreds of new nurses. Both sides had agreed to the new staffing model months ago.

Furthermore, the nurses won reinstatement for eight nurses who were fired for missing work during historic snowstorms in February 2010.

The new contract became effective Sunday.

Orlowski said the hospital is thrilled to have a longer-than-typical 3.5-year deal. "It's good for patients, and our long-term stability. It's good for the nurses," she said. or 703.258.0828.