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TEMPS–Firms Profit by Replacing Striking Nurses With Temps

Striking nurses at your local hospital? Not a problem.

During a labor dispute, hospitals scrambling for help can call on several agencies that specialize in flying temporary nurses anywhere in the country to cross picket lines for a handsome salary.

When Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles had a four-day strike in April protesting stalled contract negotiations and the proposed closure of the facility’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, officials said they turned to Healthcare Staffing in Northern California. The agency supplied nurses for the 69 positions left vacant by the strike.

Such staffing agencies come to the rescue when others won’t. Most local nursing registries that fill the daily or weekly staffing gap for hospitals are reluctant to send in health care workers during a labor dispute. And most temporary nurses who live in the area feel uncomfortable crossing picket lines because some of the striking nurses may be their friends or former colleagues. It can also generate ill will in future jobs.

“The regular registries we use to staff our day-to-day needs usually will not send nurses in because of the bad relationship it creates between nurses,” said David Milovich, vice president of human resources at Good Samaritan Hospital.

By using the service during the recent strike, the hospital did not have to transfer critically ill patients to other facilities, he said.

Lucrative trade

For those nurses who don’t mind working in a hospital hit by a strike, the service provides a chance to travel and make good money. While these companies won’t disclose the per-diem rate paid to temporary nurses, it is estimated to be twice that of a nurse’s regular salary. In addition, nurses are guaranteed at least four days pay whether they work all four or not.

One company, Travel Nurse International in Sunnyvale, Calif., advertises that nurses can earn as much as $5,300 a week and receive a $6,000 sign-on bonus.

For the hospitals, services like this keep operations running smoothly while strikers are out and avoid the costly and time-consuming problem of transferring patients to other hospitals.

And for the staffing companies, it’s a way to make a handsome profit.

But these strike-breaking nurses and the companies that employ them generate a wave of antipathy among union organizers, who view them as “vultures.”

“We believe it is not necessary for any hospitals to bring in these predatory outfits,” said Charles Idelson, a spokesman for the California Nurses Association, a labor union and trade organization for nurses. “They are extremely expensive and charge outrageous prices. They pay to fly the nurses in, house them in expensive hotels and provide them with transportation to and from the hospital. If the hospitals were to put the same resources into resolving labor disputes and paying their nurses, they wouldn’t have a need for these organizations.”

One of the largest of these organizations is U.S. Nursing Corp. based in Denver, with offices on the East and West coasts. The company was established 12 years ago after it successfully supplied many of the replacement nurses for a major strike affecting at least seven San Francisco hospitals.

Keeping a low profile

The agency deals exclusively in providing attorneys and nurses for hospitals affected by a strike. Even though company officials say they staff 95 percent of the replacement nurses in striking hospitals and have a database filled with the names of 20,000 nurses, they keep a very low profile because of the controversial nature of their work.

“We don’t do a lot of advertising,” said company spokesman Richard Green from his San Francisco office. “We try to work behind the scenes when we’re called in.”

Most recently in California, U.S. Nursing Corp. staffed Bakersfield Memorial Hospital when its nurses went on strike in November.

Currently it is providing 125 nurses to Worcester Medical Center in Worchester, Mass., where the nursing staff has been on strike since March 31. The medical center is owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp. in Santa Barbara.

Replacement nurses have a tough job. They are looked upon as basically bottom feeders who come in and take advantage of others’ dire situation. Called in at a moment’s notice, they have to work in an unfamiliar setting,

Critics maintain that these temporary staffers can cause serious medical mistakes.

Just this month, three replacement nurses were fired from Worcester Medical Center. According to public health records, one was dismissed after delivering a newborn to the wrong mother for nursing. Two more were fired after leaving a surgical patient unattended in a post-operative recovery room.

“I can’t think of a single advantage of hiring these people,” said Idelson of the California Nurses Association.

But hospitals say they couldn’t function without these agencies, which keep an essential industry running during difficult times.

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