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Storm of Controversy Follows Nurse Firings in DC Hospital

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, March 2, 2010

Should a hospital fire a nurse for failing to make it to work in a blizzard?

A Washington, DC, hospital thinks so, and has fired 11 nurses and at least five other staffers for staying home and not going to work in blizzards that pulverized much of the metro area on two occasions last month, dropping more than 40 inches of snow. One local resident—President Obama—dubbed the conditions "Snowmaggedon."

Despite the conditions, "We don't shut down—and we need everybody. Nurses are essential," says So Young Pak, spokeswoman for the Washington Hospital Center.

Pak says a "small number" of people who were terminated demonstrated a "disregard for the well-being of our patients and community we serve." Some of the fired nurses notified the hospital they weren't going to work even before "the first snowflakes fell," Pak says.

The local nurses union, Nurses United of the National Capital Region, has filed a grievance against the hospital, and the American Nurses Association (ANA) says it is looking at potential nationwide ramifications of the hospital's action, saying it is unheard of for a hospital to fire nurses because of not reporting to work because of prohibitive weather conditions.

"This is the first time I've heard of such a thing," says Cheryl Peterson, director of nursing practices and policy for the ANA.

The hospital's actions "is quite damaging to the morale of nurses," says Peterson.

The Washington Hospital Center, the largest private hospital in DC, has indicated it may fire as many as 20 people in the continuing probe, while other hospital employees are still under investigation. The Nurses United union did not respond to interview requests.

"We are closely following our process, procedures and contracts in considering discipline for those who failed to live up to their professional responsibilities, Pak adds.

Over the weekend, union representatives told the Washington Post that about 250 of the hospital's 1,600 nurses did not make their shifts at some point during the storms that hit the area between Feb. 5 and Feb 11. The hospital's weather emergency policy, however, does not mention potential firing as a consequence for failing to return to work, according to the Post.

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