Throughout much of Monday, a multitude of nurses conducted a strike and picketed outside of Howard University Hospital in the latest round of ongoing efforts to secure a contract that addresses concerns about adequate pay, nurse-patient ratio and on-the-ground conditions.
The one-day strike, coordinated by the DC Nurses Association (DCNA), attracted nearly 200 nurses, many of whom wore blue scrubs and belted chants about safety and equal pay throughout much of the day. HUH nurses and their supporters held up signs in front of the hospital and along Georgia Avenue calling for the fulfillment of their demands.
“The working conditions are seriously compromised [with] stopped up sinks, water leaks, a security board that doesn’t work and infection control issues,” said Francine Joel, a nurse of 40 years who’s on her second stint at HUH in the intensive care nursery.
“Our main issue is staffing; we have travel nurses who have been here but the baseline staffing is not based on patient acuity,” Joel said. “You have sick patients and staffing goes by numbers rather than who’s sick. Even the best nurse can’t be there for you because they’re with someone else.”
Under the status quo, most nurses, depending on where they’re stationed, remain responsible for at least five patients, the intensity of their condition notwithstanding. Contract negotiations have centered on how best to alleviate that situation and address the issue of differential pay for weeknight and weekend shifts.
Nurses said Adventist HealthCare wants to pay HUH nurses a flat rate for those shifts, rather than a percentage of base pay which nurses say would severely reduce the pay for senior personnel.
Since July, DCNA has been in negotiations with Adventist HealthCare which operates HUH in conjunction with Howard University. By last November, when the nurses’ contract expired, the two parties still had not reached an agreement. In January, nurses picketed and circulated a petition among DCNA members which suggested how they would proceed.
They, along with other labor leaders, also sent letters to Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick and HUH CEO Anita Jenkins but to no avail.
In February, Adventist HealthCare walked away from the bargaining table. Since then, there’s only one meeting, held less than a week ago, which failed to produce the desired results.
“Management has rejected each proposal time and time again and they haven’t engaged in concrete discussions about how to alleviate the staffing crisis,” said DCNA Executive Director Edward Smith.
“There are enough nurses but not enough to work under the conditions. We agreed on first-year raises and management implemented that but they didn’t follow up with differential pay,” Smith said.
In March, adjunct faculty members at Howard University, out of frustration with a years-long negotiation process, threatened to strike. They would later avoid a strike and enter a contract with the university that included incremental wage increases and other protections.
Speakers at the protest held by nurses on Monday included Dyana Forester of the Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO, Jaime Contreras of SEIU 32BJ, DC Jobs with Justice Executive Director Elizabeth Falcon, the Rev. Graylan Hagler, and a representative of SEIU local 500, which represents Howard University faculty members.
One nurse, who has worked at HUH for more than 20 years and requested anonymity, said they consider safety the most important factor in contract negotiations. At the start of the pandemic, the nurse, along with several of their colleagues, worked long hours tending to COVID-19 patients. They said funds that poured into the hospital during that time didn’t change conditions.
In standing outside HUH with their colleagues outside, the nurse said they want to ensure that both patients and nurses are protected.
“It’s overwhelming because you feel bad and you’re not sure if you gave your patients adequate care,” the nurse said. “We have patients who need close observation and we use technicians to sit with them. If you come to work and you’re not in charge, you have five people [under your care]. That means checking their vitals, washing them and changing their urinals. Everyone’s talking about money but this is about safety.”