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Nurses' strikes costly for hospitals

Hospitals across the country have been rocked by nursing strikes over the last year. The coming months show no letup, which means that hospitals will continue to face major disruptions, both financial and otherwise.

In the last year, nurses went on strike at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital in Pennsylvania, Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center, Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., and at 14 hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, among others.

[See also: Tufts Medical Center nurses vote to strike over safety; Nurses strike at Kaiser's Sunset Boulevard medical center.]

Two strikes are scheduled in Massachusetts this week and a five-day strike is scheduled later this month at Children’s Hospital Oakland, Calif. – the second nurses’ strike there since October. Two other strikes scheduled for this week – one at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor (which would have been the second strike there in less than six months) and another at Range Regional Health Services in Minnesota, have been called off due to tentative agreements reached last week.

The increase in nurses’ strikes is being blamed on out-of-control corporations, said Chuck Idelson, communications director of National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the country and the organization behind most of the strikes.

“Hospital corporations are putting their bottom line ahead of patient safety and nursing standards,” he said, which puts nurses in the position of defending their jobs and benefits as well as patient care.

Hospital administrations facing nursing strikes point the finger at nurses’ unions, saying they are pushing an aggressive national agenda instead of trying to adapt to local realities.

Whatever the reasons behind nursing strikes, the outcome for hospitals across the country is the same: These strikes are costly.

The Washington Post reported in March that the nurses’ strike at Washington Hospital Center cost the hospital $6 million in temporary nurses, additional security and other costs.

EMMC wired $2.3 million to an agency that provides temporary nurses to cover this week’s aborted nursing strike. The hospital will get most of that money back, said Greg Howat, vice president for human resources and education and chief negotiator, but he expects it’ll still cost the hospital $600,000. That figure doesn’t include incidental costs for cancelled hotel and airfare reservations that haven’t yet been calculated. It also doesn’t account for the money the hospital has spent in extra hours worked by employees during negotiations.

Also uncalculated, and maybe incalculable, are costs to the hospital’s reputation, said Jill McDonald, EMMC’s vice president of communication and market development.

“When you have something like this – when you have a group of employees knocking down the services of their employer – you get factions within the community,” she said. “People would say, ‘Well, I’m not going there while there’s a strike going on,’” thus affecting the hospital’s patient volume.

Divisions in the community also may impact the hospital’s ability to fundraise, she added.

Nurses’ strikes frequently have the support of their patients and the community, said Eileen Boris, professor of history and chairperson of the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a member of the executive board of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.

“Nurses can strike because we don’t see them as striking out of selfishness. If you look at most of the demands, they go around staffing, nurse-patient ratios and patient care,” she said. “So nurses are able, unlike many other workers, to make coalitions with their patients and with the general public. We see that better working conditions for nurses is going to translate into better care and this affects me. It affects you. It affects our grandparents, etc., our children. It is not just maybe we get a better widget made.”

Another cost of nurses’ strikes that may not show up in the financials is the cost to a hospital’s culture. In the Washington Post’s reporting on the Washington Hospital Center nurses’ strike, it was noted that hospital administrators warned employees that the hospital would not tolerate “harassment of any person ‘for their decision to strike or not to strike.'"

“The culture issue within the house is difficult,” said McDonald, “because we have now employees – co-workers – who are angry with each other for what people have been willing to say about our organization that we care about and the care that we give.”

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