Half of fired Washington Hospital Center nurses still fighting for jobs

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; B06

Nine of the 18 nurses fired by Washington Hospital Center after they failed to show up for work during February's crippling snowstorms are still fighting to get their jobs back, some of the nurses said Monday in a teleconference with reporters.

The hospital said it has reinstated nine nurses. But "the hospital has not been convinced of the error of their actions" regarding the remaining nine, said Stephen Frum, chief shop steward for Nurses United of the National Capital Region, which represents the hospital's approximately 1,600 nurses. Of the nine not reinstated, five have found other jobs, he said.

Washington Hospital Center was the only area hospital to take disciplinary action against employees who were unable to make their shifts during the historic snowstorms, Frum said.

The union says that during the storms, the hospital issued contradictory attendance information to employees. The union contract expires June 19, and a new one is being negotiated.

In a statement Monday, the hospital said that it was reviewing "employee actions" during the snowstorms and that more reinstatements were possible. The hospital also said "numerous communications" were sent to employees in anticipation of the storms that "set forth clear expectations to ensure uninterrupted patient care." The communications "stressed the need for all employees to plan ahead to relieve overworked staff."

Nurses Geri Lee and Linda Buckman, each with 31 years of experience at the hospital, were terminated after they were unable to make it to work Feb. 5. They said the streets where they live were impassable. A third nurse, Lurianne Raymond, said she had a stomach flu and told supervisors Feb. 3 that she would not be able to work Feb. 4 or Feb. 5 because she would still be contagious.

Lee, 54, said she had an exemplary record. She said she has found temporary nursing shifts and is getting paid as a member of the union's negotiating team, but she wants her job back.

"I have a mortgage and a son in college," she said. "This has been devastating."

Lee said she called supervisors several times after she tried -- and failed -- to get from her Silver Spring neighborhood to the hospital for her 7 p.m. shift Feb. 5. The hospital accused her of jeopardizing patient care, even though day-shift nurses were allowed to leave work at 7:30 p.m., Lee said. She was placed on indefinite suspension that night, and six days later, she received a termination letter.

Termination is not mentioned as a consequence of failing to get to work in the hospital's weather-emergency policy. The policy states that "unscheduled absences and late arrivals occurring during a declared weather emergency are not counted when addressing attendance issues, nor are authorized early departures."

But just before noon Feb. 5, the hospital issued a memo to staff that said if employees refused to report to work as scheduled, they could be terminated, Frum said.

"If I'm Linda Buckman, am I refusing to come to work because I can't get my car out of the garage?" Frum asked.

Union officials say management does not appear to be targeting seniority or union activism, except in Lee's case.

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