Nurses Are Being Fired For Speaking Up About Safety Concerns, 3 Recent Stories
Image: UMPC Altoona
Nurse.org recently spoke with Sarah Collins, RN, for an update. Collins was terminated after speaking out about safety concerns in 2021. More than one year later, she reports that she is still embroiled in an arduous grievance process. She explains, “I feel it is important to be transparent about what has happened since speaking publicly about staffing and safety concerns.”
The hospital terminated Collins for a charge of “practicing outside of scope” and made a complaint to the Board of Nursing. Collins says she did obtain legal counsel, but the Board dismissed the report and did not pursue action. A quick check of the Nursys database showed no disciplinary actions against the nurse. “They put me through the wringer,” Collins says. “They’ve put me through hell.”
According to the collective bargaining agreement between PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and the Washington State Nurses Association, an RN who wishes to pursue a grievance against an employer must follow a formal procedure. Collins reports that she has gone through four steps, and both the Chief Nursing Officer and Chief Executive Officer upheld her termination.
Collins also says she reported her former employer to the National Labor Relations Board, but an investigation is deferred pending the union’s Grievance Process. Her union also filed a report with the Washington Department of Health. There is a specific legislative provision governing hospital staffing in Washington. Since Collins voiced her concerns to a nurse staffing committee, her subsequent termination falls under their purview.
“This shows that legislation can make a difference, which is so important right now since the WA nurse safe staffing bill is making a lot of headway this legislative session,” explains Collins.
After over a year of fighting for restitution, Collins filed a civil suit against Peace Health.
Coast-to-coast nurses who speak up about safety concerns are facing harrowing consequences.
In June 2022, two-time Guardian Angel and DAISY award winner Dina Norris was let go after appearing on TV to talk about her hospital’s staffing problems in Pennsylvania.
In Washington, travel nurse Marian Weber and staff nurse Sarah Collins spoke out about losing their jobs with the PeaceHealth healthcare system after expressing safety concerns.
As facilities across the country remain short-staffed and rely on travel nurses paid at a premium, hospitals are firing highly qualified nurses. So why is this happening?
What Happened in Pennsylvania
On April 29, 2022, a memo was sent to UPMC Altoona staff, acknowledging poor staffing conditions and safety issues. It went viral on TikTok.
“A touchy subject: Max Surge staffing … until things improve, we are asking staff to be understanding that taking 8 patients on med/surg is possible when the staffing situation is poor. This is not ideal nor is it safe, but this is a direct order coming from upper management. HR discussions are willing to be had and refusal to take 8 when asked to may result in an HR trip.”
On May 15, 2022, five registered nurses on the ortho-neuro-trauma unit refused to take on an eighth patient, citing safety concerns.
Image: Altoona Mirror
The following week, contract nurse Dina Norris spoke to a local news station, WTAJ, about the unit staffing incident.
The Altoona Mirror included the following information about Norris' incident,
Norris had been at her job for a year and a half.
She had also worked as a staff nurse for UPMC from 2013-2015.
Norris was never disciplined and was well-regarded (she has awards to prove it).
Her original contract with UPMC Altoona was due to expire on June 18th, but UPMC had renewed it for an additional three months.
Still, five days after the TV interview, her agency notified her that her tenure with UPMC Altoona was over, effective immediately. UPMC asked Norris’ agency to include a “do not rehire” note in her employee file. The reason for termination was that Norris’ “actions weren’t in line with UPMC policies.”
Norris said she thinks that her termination will discourage further efforts to advocate for safety at UPMC Altoona. “No one wins, including the nurses themselves, the hospital, the patients,” she told the Altoona Mirror.
According to the article released by the Altoona Mirror UPMC hospital spokesman Ed DeWitt said the following, “No one was reported to the State Nursing Board.” Further “(t)he nurse who claims they were fired did not face disciplinary action, as they were not an employee of UPMC Altoona, but a temporary agency contractor.”
What Happened in Washington
According to an article published by NBC News on May 15, 2022, the PeaceHealth system out of Washington reportedly renewed Marian Weber’s travel nurse contract at Ketchikan Hospital in Ketchikan, Alaska. That same day, Weber escalated a problem about patients in the medical-surgical unit that she felt should be in the ICU.
Both patients were seriously ill with COVID-19, one intubated and the other on continuous BiPAP. Weber said there were available ICU beds at that time. However, the patients were placed behind opaque doors without central monitoring.
Weber said, “It’s our job to advocate for safety… it’s what we’re supposed to do.”
She retained legal counsel and filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Weber’s attorney reported that the NLRB found her charge credible. And, one of the labor board councilmen admitted that this “contract termination was not a standalone case.”
One of the labor board councilmen admitted that this “contract termination was not a standalone case.”
In September 2021, a KATU local TV station interviewed nurse, Sarah Collins, who said she was fired from her job in the ICU at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Washington after speaking out about unsafe nurse-to-patient ratios. She started a Facebook group for nurses after raising concerns with her employer.
In the interview with KATU she expressed concerns about safety in her hospital. PeaceHealth reprimanded her for violating the company’s media policy and put her on administrative leave for three months.
Interestingly, her comments were rather vague about certain aspects regarding the state of nursing at the hospital. She was quoted saying,
“It seems that every week we're losing more core staff.”
“We're usually a well-oiled team. We know our roles, we know who we can depend on when you have several patients, um, in a code situation all at once. You need to know who you're going to turn to for help.”
“The conversations with the family members are haunting. They're absolutely haunting.”
“The constant beeps and alarms you hear those in your sleep. I've been a nurse for a very long time and I've never had this problem putting work—compartmentalizing.”
“When there's no end in sight and things are getting direr by the moment, um, how much can a counselor do?”
When she came back to work, she was reportedly terminated immediately. The reasons included “failing to follow policy” and “operating outside her scope of practice.”
Protections for Nurses
Several state and federal laws prohibit retaliation against employees who speak out about safety concerns. Also, nurses that are part of a Union, especially in California, have increased protection. In fact, a memo from OSHA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced protection for healthcare workers.
Unfortunately, when employers violate these protections, nurses can end up in costly, time-consuming legal proceedings.
Nurses want to give the best care to their patients. Sometimes that means advocating for better standards. When nurses have to speak up, the best way to report concerns is in writing, following your chain of command. Expressing concerns in this way starts a paper trail that can protect the nurse down the road.
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