Hundreds of nurses dressed in red jackets picketed outside the grounds of the Washington Hospital Center on March 5 demanding a safe staffing plan to care for patients.

For many of the nurses this second day of picketing was a hard pill to swallow. The original one-day walkout was held on March 4, when over 1,000 caregivers signed up and participated in the protest. However, hospital officials forewarned union leaders that if a strike were to occur, participants would be locked out of work for an additional four days.

Cassidy Joseph, 55, an emergency room nurse, expressed the sentiment of her colleagues. “We are very anxious to come back to work. After our one-day protest, it was doubly insulting that MedStar would lock us out. What’s wrong with demanding a safe environment for the patients?” said Joseph, a seven-year nurse.

The hospital expected a walkout and were prepared for it, a hospital spokeswoman said.

“We knew well in advance that a strike might occur at some point,” said Soyoung Pak, hospital spokeswoman for the Washington Hospital Center (WHC). “You can’t hire top nurses from other parts of the country for one day. So we negotiated a contract with the US Nursing Corps guaranteeing 60 hours of work for the temporary nursing staff.”

The nurses have been without a contract since last June. On Feb. 26, WHC and National Nurses United (NNU), the union representing the nurses, ended a series of 14 sessions, totaling nearly 100 hours in which no agreement was reached. Before this most recent round of discussions, the parties met 30 times and reached agreement on approximately 30 articles in 2010, leaving fewer than 10 issues to be resolved. Neither the union nor hospital officials were willing to discuss the remaining issues other than what has been made public which includes attempts to cut nurses’ pay.

Kenneth Zinn, 52, director of strategic campaigning, NNU, a California-based union, said the main issue is patient safety.

Zinn remembered an incident reported to the union in the mother-baby unit with one nurse taking care of six mothers and six babies alone. “This is not fair to the patients. What happens with this contract will set the trend for other nursing hospitals in the area. It’s time for the hospital to respect patient advocacy and provide a staffing plan that gives patients the proper care they need,” said Zinn.

But the hospital questions those seemingly altruistic reasons.

“Despite NNU’s public rhetoric about alleged concerns around safety and staffing, none of these issues was raised or discussed by the union in any way in the most recent negotiating sessions,’ said Pak. “This all about money.”

Pak said a recent survey found that WHC nurses get paid 120 percent higher for shift differentials than neighboring jurisdictions. “We want to bring those salaries back in line by offering a flat rate rather than a percentage,” Pak said.

According to the 2010 fiscal report of WHC’s parent company, MedStar, the non-profit organization made a profit of $142 million, union leaders said. In the first three months of fiscal year 2011, the hospital reports profits of $62 million for the first quarter on operating revenues and investment returns.

“That’s totally false,” said Pak. “Our hospital lost $11 million in January. Admissions are going down. We have a $1.9 million bed tax. We offered $100 million in free care last year.”

Nurses said they earned every cent of their salaries. Lori J. Marlowe, 35, a cardiac nurse has been working at the hospital for 12 years. “The staffing pattern almost makes it impossible to provide the type of care our patients need. There are far too many stories to tell,” said Marlowe.

Ndip Ayuk-Takor, 31, registered nurse in ICU, said some patients need a higher level of care but are made to wait. “Many times it almost takes one or two hours before nurses are reassigned from other units or agencies to provide care,” she said.

Joanne Johnson, 38, a clinical nurse in ICU, has been a nurse for 19 years. She worked in hospitals in the United Kingdom before coming to WHC four years ago. “Besides the nurse-to-patient ratio, I was quite surprised that the hospital would lack so many resources and modern technology,” said Johnson, a 19-year veteran nurse. “Last July, WHC just received lifting machines to lift heavy patients. Until now, nurses would be lifting patients, well over 400 pounds.”