D.C. hospital fires 11 nurses, 5 staffers for snowstorm absences

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

The District's largest private hospital has fired 11 nurses and five support staff members who failed to make it to work during the back-to-back snowstorms that paralyzed the region earlier this month.

Dozens of staff members at Washington Hospital Center face internal investigations, union representatives say, and it is unclear how many employees will lose their jobs. On Friday, the nurses union, Nurses United of the National Capital Region, filed a class-action grievance with the hospital.

"I see it as so unfair and uncaring," said Shirley Ricks, a 57-year-old nurse who has spent her entire career at the hospital. "That's it. You call in one day in the biggest snowstorm in history and you're out. No ifs, ands or buts about it. . . . You go from getting a salary every two weeks to nothing. It's scary."

In a letter sent to the staff on Friday, hospital President Harry J. Rider sought to quell rumors that hundreds of people had been fired. He said he expects fewer than 20 people will be dismissed.

"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," he wrote.

Hospital spokeswoman So Young Pak said she could not comment on specific cases or personnel issues, but "we do not terminate any associates without a fair process. We always review the entire situation with the final decision based on all facts and circumstances."

Union representatives said about 250 of the hospital's 1,600 nurses did not make their shifts at some point during the storms that pummeled the area between Feb. 5 and Feb 11. Pak could not confirm that number but said on the Monday after the first blizzard, 759 employees who were scheduled to work did not show up. On a typical weekday, the hospital has between 3,100 and 3,350 employees working. The nurses earn an average of $40 an hour.

The hospital continues to examine the circumstances of staffers who did not make it into work, Pak said.

Hoping for sympathy

Officials at other local hospitals and unions that represent critical personnel, such as emergency responders, said they had not heard of staffing problems elsewhere or of disciplinary action against employees who were unable to make their shifts. The Transportation Security Administration last week reversed an initial decision to consider Dulles International Airport security screeners AWOL if they had not made it to work during the snow emergency.

Ricks said she hopes the hospital will show similar sympathy and give her back the job she held for 35 years.

Ricks was scheduled to work Feb. 8, but looked at her unplowed street in Upper Marlboro the previous afternoon and knew she was likely to miss her shift. "My husband had gotten the driveway clear, but that was as far as we could go," she said.

She said she called the hospital to explain her situation and reported to work Feb. 9, as soon as her street was passable. On Feb. 10, she spent the night at the hospital to ensure a second storm wouldn't cause her to miss work the next day.

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