Numerous articles have illuminated the stress and fatigue of nurses working through the pandemic. Ironically, the plight of nurses who became passionately outspoken during COVID has received less attention by the press. Many of those nurses are now in litigation, attempting to reclaim jobs they lost following an episode of speaking out as concerned providers.
Aggrieved nurses wanted to clarify what they believed to be unspeakable conditions, especially those alarmed regarding the quality and quantity of PPE, nurse-patient ratios (staffing conditions), or the lengthy hours they worked providing care. Frustrated, they may have found themselves providing sound bites for the press. In the heat of the moment, nurses believed the public needed to know what only they could explain; they believed a "whistleblower" critique was warranted.
Unfortunately, for nurses brave enough to speak out and critique employers, many found themselves abruptly terminated, as well as incredibly surprised by the action.
One of the more recent episodes involved a nurse terminated by Kaiser Permanente Hospital in California. Unvaccinated, she believed the hospital should have been willing to accept her religious exemption to receiving the COVID vaccine. Escorted by security off hospital grounds, the unnamed nurse loudly tried to engage bystanders into her predicament by talking about "what she was willing to do for freedom." As much as she longed for validation by the crowd, the display may have equally dismayed her employers.
A Chicago nurse could have easily identified with this cause. She believed she was doing the right thing by emailing colleagues with her concerns about PPE. She wanted to wear a "more protective mask" while on duty. Her employer, however, promptly fired her.
The nurse has filed a wrongful termination claim. Nurses choosing to follow her lead need to understand hospital policy related to speaking out, as well as be able to identify laws pertaining to wrongful termination in their state.
New Hampshire, for example, has laws related to firing of an employee (nurse, physician, et al) for speaking out on topics crucial to public policy. In that state, nurses might be exempt from termination if it appeared they were speaking out to emphasize either the seriousness of the pandemic, or the need for funding of supplies.
However, not all states provide protection to nurses. Employers might view speaking out as a violation of social media policies that exist to protect the reputation of the institution.
Two Sides to the Story
Several nurses in Michigan, including Sal Hadwan, believe hospital systems terminated them unjustly for speaking out. Sal, a Detroit nurse once employed by Detroit Medical Center's Sinai Grace Hospital, posted at length on Facebook after what he believed was an unwarranted, abrupt firing. Sal posted that his employer believed he had shared pictures of deceased patients with the press, which he denies.
Sal had also posted video of nurses following a "sit-in" related to staffing on April 5, 2020. While Sal was expansive about his side of the termination, Sinai Grace Hospital issued a statement following an investigation of their own, which stated that their ethics hotline had received information about photos taken of deceased patients, a violation of patient rights. Sal may have believed he was acting in the best interest of his colleagues, and/or in the hopes of improving conditions during the pandemic, but his posts left him both unemployed and defending his reputation.
A nurse who violates patient privacy may find it difficult to regain successful employment, especially if that nurse has taken photos of bodies piled up and "stored in vacant rooms," which is what his employer alleged.
Another nurse who gained media fame for posting about a wrongful termination was Adam Witt, a union leader at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune. Human resources fired Adam in April 2020. Since that time, Adam has been actively striving to get his job back. However, hospital security posted flyers warning visitors and colleagues to be on the alert for Adam, should he try to return to hospital grounds. Although Adam thought the signs might be an April Fool's Day prank, they were not. The hospital was serious about Adam's termination. Thirteen months later, Adam remains unemployed.
Although Adam had been incredibly descriptive regarding potential safety issues at the university medical center, the hospital rebutted his narrative to describe why Human Resources had terminated him. He had, they stated, left patients unattended when he chose to support another employee at her disciplinary hearing. Jersey Shore University Medical Center believed Adam's priority should have been caring for his patient load, not voicing concerns on a national level.
Who decides the outcome of this dilemma? Adam's case is in arbitration, but the scenario should serve as a warning to nurses who passionately believe they have a story to tell. Take care of business first, especially when patients are involved.
Why the Winds Are Changing
A case decided by federal court may be changing the rules, however. The case involved a young woman by the name of Karen Jo Young, an activities coordinator. Although Karen's actions were like those of nurses before her, the outcome of her case may change hospital rules related to speaking out.
Karen Jo Young had written a letter to her local newspaper. The letter criticized her employer, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine, for staffing shortages and other safety concerns. Within hours of the publication, the hospital fired Karen, believing that she violated their social media policies.
A federal appellate court, however, insisted Karen's firing had been illegal. They asked that the hospital reinstate her. The decision was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which argued that Karen had acted in protected "concerted activity". This ruling is one of the few concerning the National Labor Relations Act that protects the right of employee speech, particularly related to the media.
Consequently, healthcare institutions may need to revise social media policies that are outdated and pertain to rules that made sense pre-pandemic. Speaking out may still result in termination, especially if your goals are to criticize and vent, rather than educate.
Think Before You Speak Out
Could an employer fire you for speaking out? Absolutely. But hope is on the horizon, and new rules for engaging with the media could be just around the corner.
In the interim, know what your employer (and state) expects before you hit "send." It could be the smartest career move ever.
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Any views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of WebMD or Medscape.
Cite this: Diane M. Goodman. Fired for Speaking Out! Could It Happen to You? - Medscape - Nov 12, 2021.