City Desk

Still No Settlement For Nurses Fired For Snowstorm Absences

Negotiations have stalled between Washington Hospital Center and nine nurses fired in February for failing to report to work amid hazardous blizzard conditions.

“We were hopeful in making a resolution that would settle both sides on a forward trajectory to handle future crisis…with clarity,” Stephen Frum, the chief shop stewart for Nurses United, said during a conference call on Monday.

The union, representing the 1,600 nurses at the hospital, has filed grievances for the nine nurses, alongside a class-action grievance covering more than a dozen others who were given lesser disciplines for failing to show up for work during the blizzard, Frum said.

There were 1,550 reported absences for scheduled shifts at the hospital during the snowy weekend of Feb. 5 through Feb. 7. Of those, there were 18 known terminations. The hospital has since reinstated nine of those nurses, finding they had dismissed them in error, Frum said.

“As it’s warm now, it’s easy for us to forget…about the events 4 months ago, when the worst blizzard in modern history…shut down most of the city for 5 days,” Frum said. “People are expected to make efforts to go to work, but no one’s ever been fired,” he added.

At 5:33 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4, the night before the first snow started falling, human resources sent out a memo that indicated standard pay and attendance rules would apply–meaning if a nurse couldn’t make it in, they’d be counted as an absence. But, just before noon on Friday, as snow started accumulating, another memo was circulated, stating, in Frum's words, "despite what we’ve done in the past, if an associate is not going to get to work, you should advise them that their refusal will be considered insubordination."

The abrupt change in policy failed to give nurses enough time to prepare, Frum said.

In a February letter to staff, reprinted in the Washington Post, hospital President Harry J. Rider wrote:

“Sadly, we did experience some issue with associates who did not show the same commitment as most of their co-workers to the community, our patients and their fellow associates. They are the few who turned away from their scheduled shifts and who tried–and are still trying–to turn the focus on themselves rather than the thousands of Washington Hospital Center workers who fulfilled their commitment to their patients and colleagues, and made it to work.”

The terminated nurses argue that they had no way of getting there on their own, noting the hospital was not providing transportation, either.

Geri Lee, a registered nurse and employee at the hospital for 31 years, was informed of her termination by courier letter on Feb. 11. Scheduled to work the night shift on Friday, she started digging her car at 3 p.m. from her gated condo community in Montgomery County, Md., for her 7 p.m. shift. Her attempts proved futile against unploughed roads, she said.  When she called in to inform her supervisor that she could not make it in, she was told, “Honey, that’s your problem, not mine.” Her division head informed her that she faced indefinite suspension or termination if she refused to come into work. “I’m not refusing, I have no transportation,” Lee recalled saying. “I was devastated. Letters were sent in my behalf of neighbors who got stuck…a AAA tow truck got stuck, a 4-wheel drive.”

Only last year, Lee was recognized for her exemplary work. Her photograph was posted in the hospital's Hall of Fame at the hospital. “But I hear it’s no longer there,” she said.

Although “it’s common for us to operate with insufficient number of nurses,” Frum said, the hospital center has suffered a chronic shortage of nurses, especially in the past 18 months. That weekend though, the hospital’s demand was low as a result of cancellations, patients moved elsewhere, and extra staff members who chose to stay, Frum said. Ordinarily, nurses aren’t dismissed from their shift until the next shift arrives. And on Friday evening, the nurses were allowed to leave, therefore, there was no shortage, he added. To fire someone when there wasn't even a shortage, "doesn't make any sense," he said.

Linda Buckman, a nurse in the medical surgical unit for 41 years, was also terminated for failure to show up for work. Unlike Lee, though, she was not immediately suspended. She went to work the next week as usual, and was informed, after her shift on Feb. 23, that she was terminated for her refusal to come into work on Feb. 5.

Nurse Lurianne Raymond happened to be ill with a gastrointestinal virus that weekend, she said. She called in sick. Weeks later, Raymond was told the hospital was investigating absences during the blizzard, she said. During the investigation, she was asked to provide a doctors note, but she hadn’t seen a doctor.  According to hospital policy, an employee has to be off three consecutive days before they’re required to provide one. Raymond insisted she was not out that long. On March 3, she received a notice of termination by FedEx. “Would it be safer to go to work and spread the virus to patient and staff?” Raymond asked.

Hoping to have matters resolved this past May, negotiations have dragged on amid the union’s current contract battle with the hospital. This coming Thursday is the final session of contract negotiations.

"The Union is asking that these policies, though, are written so nurses are forewarned a termination may be possible, and may prepare in the case of another blizzard or emergency,” Frum said.

A hospital spokesperson responded with the following statement:

During last winter's weather emergency, Washington Hospital Center's first and foremost priority was to ensure safe, quality care for all of our patients.

We are working through a union-sanctioned process to ensure that the employee actions taken during the February blizzards were done fairly in light of their important professional responsibilities to our patients and the community.

Of all the cases under review, there have been nine reinstatements. The Hospital Center is open to the possibility of additional reinstatements, should the information surrounding a particular case warrant it.

It has been our longstanding policy that all essential personnel are expected and required to make arrangements, including implementation of a personal preparedness plan, to be at work for their scheduled shifts during a snow emergency or any other emergency condition.

After the December storm, we evaluated staffing and other operational issues that affect our ability to care for our patients. As a result of that evaluation, we decided to proactively communicate our expectations in anticipation of the February snowstorms. Numerous communications were sent to all of our employees to inform, update and help them plan for the February show event and remind them of their essential role and obligations to ensuring the care and safety of our patients. These communications set forth clear expectations to ensure uninterrupted patient care, and stressed the need for all employees to plan ahead to relieve overworked staff.

Policy changes were not necessary. Our collective bargaining agreement allows the hospital to dismiss employees for gross misconduct.

Thankfully, the vast majority of our nurses met their commitment to serving Washington area patients with great professionalism. Out of 1,550 nurses, only nine failed to comply.

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