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

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A01

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.

She was dismissed, effective last Tuesday.

"Now I got to get out there and see who wants to hire an old lady," she said.

Some streets impassable

Washington Hospital Center's "Declared Weather (Or Other) Emergency" policy, does not mention termination as a consequence for failing to get to work. It does state: "Unscheduled absences and late arrivals occurring during a declared weather emergency are not counted when addressing attendance issues, nor are authorized early departures."

Pak said the hospital provided transportation for employees during the storm, but union representatives said it was not available at all times. In any case, they said, the vehicles could not reach every street. Stephen Frum, chief shop steward for Nurses United, said some nurses have photos that show their streets were impassable.

Frum said he has reviewed the records of at least half the fired nurses, and none had prior disciplinary problems. He and others question the timing of the firings. The union is scheduled to begin negotiations with the hospital on a new contract Monday.

Pak said the terminations have "nothing to do with the contract and everything to do with our responsibility and commitment to our patients and their families."

Deepa George, 33, mother of a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old, was not able to make it from her Bowie home to the hospital on Feb. 6, as the first blizzard raged all day. But on Feb. 7, she said she drove the family's sport-utility vehicle down her neighborhood's unplowed roads. She left at 4 p.m. for a shift that started at 7 p.m.

"I just prayed to God to take care of my kids and take care of me as I was driving because I didn't want to leave them orphaned," she said.

She had heard rumblings over the last few weeks that nurses had been fired, but it wasn't until Monday that she received her notice. She had worked at the hospital for eight years. "I hope the hospital realizes no one did this on purpose," she said.

Highs and lows

Geri Lee said she received two pieces of mail this month that represent the highest and lowest moments of her 31-year nursing career. One was a thank-you card from a woman who credits Lee with saving her son's life. The other was a letter of termination from the hospital that informed Lee she was fired for "gross misconduct."

Lee said she showed up at the hospital for her Feb. 11 shift prepared to stay the night. But when her shift ended Friday morning, she said she didn't see a need to stay because the snow hadn't started falling. She went home to Silver Spring.

The next day, Lee, 54, said she tried for an hour and half to get out of her neighborhood before calling the hospital to say she could not make it in. That night, she was placed on indefinite suspension. Six days later, she received a termination letter.

"I was devastated," Lee said.

Lee's last performance review, dated September 2009, says she "volunteers to care for the most challenging patients and is helpful to her peers in sharing her expertise and assisting when needed." Last year, she was recognized as one of the hospital's "Superstars" and her photo was hung on the hospital's "Wall of Fame."

Two days after she was terminated, she said, she opened her mailbox to find a card from Adreion Packer. Twenty-two years earlier, on the day Packer's son, Corey, was born, Lee noticed that his coloring was off and insisted something was not right. The child was found to have a congenital heart defect.

The card was addressed to what Packer has called Lee since that day: "Corey's Guardian Angel."

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