February 6, 2004

Questions swirl around hospital firings

Since the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) filed a grievance against the hospital for firing several of its members, some of the 52 who were let go last month for parking illegally, many are now considering the possibility that the hospital may have secretly planned the terminations of these workers.

Unions—including the INA—have been in contract negotiations with the hospital since June. They continue to ask the hospital to give workers their first pay raise in 10 years. Supporters of the union suspect that this request, paired with the fact that several of the terminated workers were active union members, factored into the terminations.

"This hospital is so anti-union, and they really are anti-nurse," said one nurse who did not want to reveal her identity. "[Nurses] are the backbone of this hospital, yet [they] are treated like second-class citizens."

The spokesman for the University Hospitals, John Easton, responded to the INA's concerns by saying that the termination decisions were made by reviewing each individual employee's parking record. "The terminated employees included union members and staff who were not union members," he said. "Membership in or level of activity in unions was totally irrelevant."

Nurses still question the hospital's intentions, especially considering the fact that the hospital gave no warning to those terminated. They see the immediacy of the dismissals as a possible indicator that the hospital planned these firings.

One nurse who was not terminated, Carolyn Newkirk, said, "They gave out no warning to these people as far as I know. Given that, if they knew how long this was going on, the issue of entrapment rears its ugly head."

Easton insisted the hospital had no such motives. He said that the hospital did not want to sit back and let them steal. "We did not know they were doing it, but once we […] came to realize that they had been doing it for months, we acted promptly," Easton said. "This is not a subtle, nuanced policy matter."

Easton cited the distribution of a memo last October, which was one of many periodically distributed to employees. The October memo exhorted people not to park in the South garage, because those spaces were needed for patients, he said, adding that it was "simply a reminder that the garage was overcrowded."

"It focused on the fact that the employees needed to park elsewhere, not that they were sneaking in and not paying," Easton said, adding that it was nearly identical to several previous memos that all included the text: "All employees who do not have authorized monthly parking in the south garage will be asked to use one of the suggested parking options listed below."

"No one was warned because of the nature of the offense," he added. "If you are habitually tardy, you get warned, but theft does not require a warning."

Several hospital employees and ex-employees told the Maroon that they have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the hospital's loose use of the word "theft" in its accusations.

"I paid for my parking," said fired nurse and union member Linnita Carter. "So did many others. It's horrible that they've lumped us all into one category: thieves. It's a dangerous label."

Easton explained the hospital's decision to consider the situation an instance of theft.

"Some people paid $40 a month to park in an off-site lot but were parking instead in the closer, more expensive garage, where we go to considerable trouble to reserve most of the spaces for use by patients. Parking in the south garage costs $12 a day," he said.

Still, given that the terminations coincided with the negotiations and that there was no warning, nurses—both terminated and employed—remain skeptical over the hospital's motives.

"They know they're going to have to shave down their staff at some point," Carter said. "It's a budget issue. They really should have had a bit more respect though. They didn't have to go about it this way."

Another point of contention remains the reason why while some employees were given the option to resign, others were not.

Angela Prentiss, one of the fired nurses, says she was asked, after being fired, if she would like to come back and change her paperwork for a resignation. She did not choose to resign, but suggested that the hospital may have made a similar offer to some other nurses.

Easton said that every employee has the right to resign at any time. He did not address any post-termination offers, but said that eight people chose on their own to resign prior to having disciplinary action taken against them—"but the choice was not explicitly stated to these employees as one of resign or be terminated," he said.

"The hospitals looked at each case individually," Easton said. "A team from Human Resources interviewed everyone—65 people—who appeared to have multiple violations and then assessed whether or not they had convincing reasons. After an individualized determination, 52 of those 65 were let go."

Erica Phillips, a terminated nurse and union member who says she was not given the option to resign, criticized this case-by-case procedure, claiming the hospital was not consistent in its punishments.

"The hospital just wants to make the union spend more money than necessary for individual lawyers and cases. [The hospital] says [it] would like to do this on a case-by-case basis when it should be a class action lawsuit," Phillips said. "They're really full of shit."

The most popular complaint among nurses, both terminated and employed, is that the hospital's policy on parking was never clear.

John Easton elucidated the hospital's policy, explaining that employees are not supposed to park in the South garage until after 5 p.m. unless they have permission to park in that particular garage and pay the monthly fee of $90. Workers who have signed up to park at either of the off-site lots—one is free and the other is $40 a month—are allowed to move their cars into the garage for free after 5 p.m., but they must go to a designated area, using IDs to enter and exit.

"The people who were fired were those who snuck into the garage in the morning, parked there all day, day after day, for months, and left without paying," Easton said.

He said that when people sign up to use one of the off-site lots, they are instructed when they may use the garage—after hours and on weekends—but officials make clear that they should not use that garage during the day.

Newkirk and another nurse who was not fired, Kelly Tripp, said they knew of no precise guidelines for parking.

The INA nursing contract did not address parking violations at all. Phillips, Carter, and others claim they have seen a contract that said parking violations would result in a removal of parking privileges.

Easton, Newkirk, and Tripp all said they had never seen this contract.

Another matter of contention was the sign in the garage, specifying that there was "restricted parking" from 5:30 to 11 a.m. One nurse claimed that this sign misled people, as it did not correspond with the "after 5 p.m." rule.

Easton argued that there should not have been any confusion. He said that the sign refers to times when parking is doubly restricted.  During this period, employees who do not pay for monthly parking in the garage cannot use the garage at all, even if they pay to park.

Richard Mosley, a fired lifting technician, had worked at the hospital for 17 years. He told the Maroon that he could not believe the hospital would take such drastic disciplinary action for something so trivial compared with other issues he has dealt with—like racism.

"On two separate occasions, I dealt with some serious comments from nurses. One called me a monkey and the other called me a boy," he said.

In response, the hospital sat down with Mosley and the nurses. "They told the first one to apologize and the second one that if she called me ‘boy' again, there would be consequences," he said. "The hospital needs to look at its priorities. They are not nearly as heavy on racism as they are with parking misunderstandings."

Nurse Tripp added, "We're talking about parking. Nobody was killed. Maybe a suspension would be more appropriate for those who were fired. The punishment should fit the crime."