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2/14/02, by Wendy Y. Lawton
Nurses return to OHSU, but strike tension chills the air
For the first time in 59 days, Laurelen Jabbour woke up to an alarm clock Wednesday. It was 4:30 a.m. As a nurse at Oregon Health & Science University, it was time to get back to work.
Jabbour drove from her 10-acre Banks farm to the 263-acre Portland campus, fell in line with about 200 fellow nurses, and marched onto the job after striking for nearly two months. The symbolic pre-dawn stroll into the main lobby of OHSU Hospital put an end to one of the longest labor disputes in Oregon in a generation.
When Jabbour got to the 14th floor of the hospital -- where she's worked since 1975 -- her employee badge didn't work. She recognized only one nurse's face. Over lunch, she had a chilly conversation with a colleague who had crossed the picket line.
And Jabbour spent eight hours caring for five post-surgery patients. Nurses said that was the lesson after the labor dispute: Going back to work can be the toughest part of walking off the job.
Oregon's busiest medical center was plainly divided during the strike. Rhetoric was harsh, rumors flew. But on Wednesday, staff members had to face each other -- and work together.
Nurses, doctors, patients and managers reported a range of reactions, from warm hugs to cold shoulders. Just about everyone reported a lot of anxiety.
"It's a little tense around here," nurse Kim Brolutti said. "People are being professional. But it's certainly not warm."
Case in point: A top hospital administrator walked into Brolutti's unit Wednesday morning, shaking nurses' hands and welcoming them back. When he shook Brolutti's hand, the administrator said not to worry, that OHSU was still No. 1.
"I said, 'As long as you respect your nurses, you'll be No. 1,' " Brolutti said. "Well, he let go of my hand at that point."
Reporters were barred from OHSU hospitals and clinics Wednesday. University officials said they didn't want to disturb patients or staff. But medical director Dr. Roy Magnusson said the nurses' return went smoothly.
Magnusson said all units were open and that 88 percent of hospital beds were full. About 160 OHSU nurses reported at 7 a.m. along with 50 replacement nurses. Despite any hard feelings, Magnusson said, it was business as usual: "It's quiet and it's controlled."
Wednesday, however, was far from typical on Pill Hill.
As nurses marched into the hospital lobby at 6:30 a.m., OHSU nursing director Bonnie Driggers stood outside to greet them. Magnusson welcomed them inside.
Throughout the day, 45 post-strike meetings were held. The two-hour sessions were aimed at trying to rebuild teamwork. That, hospital officials and nurses acknowledged, could be a challenge.
According to the university, nearly 400 nurses crossed picket lines during the strike. The Oregon Nurses Association -- the union representing about 1,500 OHSU nurses -- puts that number closer to 300. Meanwhile, OHSU hired about 800 replacement nurses through a California staffing firm during the course of the strike. Some of those replacements will continue to work for a few days or several weeks.
To make the transition smoother, nurses and managers met in lounges and conference rooms to emphasize "respectful" communication and cooperation, a spokeswoman said. OHSU employees specially trained in dispute resolution were on hand.
Barbara Glidewell, the university's patient advocate for 26 years, was one of them.
Glidewell said nurses vented anger, fear, excitement, hope. She said nurses worried most about being judged for the decisions they made -- no matter what side of the strike they fell on.
Dealing with those differences in a civil way, Glidewell said, is important not only for staff but also for the public.
"To provide excellent care, we have to respect each another," Glidewell said. "We can't get caught up in emotions. If you do, you won't communicate well. And that's not good for patients."
These "team building" sessions will continue for at least the rest of the week. Staff will be available for weeks to answer questions or diffuse conflicts.
Nurses are also getting a post-strike booklet written by OHSU. "Re-establishing Teams: A Journey of Healing" includes advice on handling intense emotions and about talking without fighting. Tips on dealing with stress run to massage and meditation.
Some nurses are already complaining about back-to-work treatment. Union officials said they took dozens of calls this week about unannounced changes in work schedules.
"This is a hell of a way to restart things," said union negotiator Kathleen Sheridan, who spent the day touring hospital units.
Sheridan said some nurses plan to quit over the schedule switches. Already, 77 nurses resigned over the course of the strike, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Yet nurses voted overwhelmingly Sunday to end the strike that cost Portland's biggest employer at least $6 million.
Nurses approved a contract offer giving them at least a 20 percent pay raise over a three-year period. Managers and the union also agreed to improve working conditions and seek national hospital accreditation for nursing excellence.
Nurses and managers hope those changes will mend relationships -- and improve care. Dr. Christopher Richards, director of acute care in the emergency department, said this will take time.
"You can't reinvent the wheel overnight," Richards said. "Everyone wants to snap their fingers and make it better -- but life doesn't happen like that."