Travel nurse fired for voicing COVID safety concerns
Marian Weber, a travel nurse from Louisiana, was excited to start a contract at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center in Ketchikan, Alaska in April 2021. However, what began as an exciting opportunity quickly turned into a nightmare.
After voicing her concerns to management and senior administrators regarding the safety of nurses and patients related to COVID-19, she was fired by the hospital on August 24th.
As the delta variant continued to spread across the country, Alaska was particularly hard-hit over the summer. PeaceHealth Medical Center, a city-owned hospital run by a Vancouver, Washington-based nonprofit, began to admit COVID-19 patients from long-term care facilities.
According to the website, PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center is a 25-bed hospital with an additional 29 beds dedicated to long-term care. Founded in 1923 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, Little Flower Hospital was later renamed to align with the 10 other hospitals in the PeaceHealth Hospital System. The Hospitals are located in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska and are run under the guidance of the faith-based, mission-oriented PeaceHealth organization.
Travel nurse voices safety concerns
During an interview, Weber said that many of the coronavirus patients at PeaceHealth Ketchikan were critically ill and required ICU-level care despite remaining in the medical-surgical unit.
“We had one patient that was intubated, and we had one that required continuous BiPAP (a type of ventilator), and these are ICU-level … patients,” she said. Despite there being ICU COVID beds available, the decision was made to keep these patients who required ICU-level care in the COVID medical-surgical unit.
Unlike ICU rooms, medical-surgical rooms are not equipped for the near-constant monitoring that critically ill patients require. Oftentimes, the rooms do not have see-through windows and glass doors or individual monitors that communicate to a central monitoring system.
PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center has opaque room doors and no ICU level monitoring system, according to Weber. The solution? Weber says the facility suggested keeping one nurse in the room to monitor these patients for 12-hour shifts despite the patients being infected with the highly contagious virus.
Weber took the logical next step. She spoke to the unit manager who suggested she speak to a hospital administrator. What happens next is appalling. Weber called the senior hospital administrator voicing her concerns regarding unsafe assignments because of prolonged exposure to the coronavirus.
“And I did,” she said. “And she responded with, ‘I need you to understand the verbiage I’m about to use’ — these are her words — ‘and share it with your traveling co-workers. You are not staff. You are guests here, and you can leave at any time. There is a long line of travelers waiting to take your job.’
“I asked her to tread very carefully in our conversation because it sounded like when I voiced concerns about staff and patient safety, Sherry (Dunlay) was responding by threatening my position,” she said. “So when I explained that concern to her, she responded to me, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”
Sherry Dunlay, the former Interim Director of Acute Care, oversaw approximately 100 full-time employees at the hospital. After the conversation with Dunlay, Weber filed an internal ethics complaint using the hospital’s anonymous tip line. Four days later her contract was formally terminated.
Formal complaint and legal action
Weber has formally filed a complaint with the state of Alaska under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Section 11c and a federal whistleblower workplace complaint. Furthermore, she has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board under unfair labor practices related to a wrongful termination for engaging in protected concerted activity. Both agencies have found merit in her complaint and have opened cases. As a result, the hospital has retained outside legal counsel. Additionally, Dunlay has left her job abruptly and will relocate per an email to hospital employees.
Weber saw her firing as retaliation for voicing her safety concerns. In fact, a week prior to the firing, her travel contract was extended another four months. She said hospital officials had recently thanked her for extending her contract during a “Caregiver Celebration Day.”
Official statement from Alaska Nurses Association (ANA)
Shannon McClendon, Public Relations Manager for the American Nurses Association (ANA), stated that Weber’s actions exemplified the Code of Ethics for Nurses and the ANA commends her for raising her voice and filing a complaint with OSHA.
According to the ANA, there have been countless reports of employers retaliating against nurses for raising legitimate concerns about personal safety, less-than-ideal work conditions, as well as the safety of patients. The ANA has publicly expressed concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA emphasizing that the retaliation against all health care workers is illegal.
The Alaska nursing union also has openly supported Weber and agreed that nurses should be able to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisals.
“Our working conditions are our patients’ healing conditions. A safety risk to an employee is a safety risk to you or your loved one,” Alaska Nurses Association Programs Director Andrea Nutty said in a statement.
Weber is continuing to share her story with anyone who is willing to listen. She tells Nurse.Org that her decision to ultimately bring this to the public’s attention is threefold:
- “Nurses must have a supportive path for patient and staff advocacy without fear of retaliation so that we are able to provide safe and effective care for our patients.”
- “Travel nurses are employed as ‘at-will’ contract employees who can be terminated or canceled at any time. Wrongful terminations can be hidden under the veil of at-will employment. Currently, travel nurses have little protection against wrongful termination. I hope my case against this system will be a catalyst for change in my industry. We are a necessary resource and leave our families and friends behind to fill gaps in staffing nationwide. We have answered the call during this pandemic. We have and continue to put our lives on the line and we deserve the respect and support of our industry.”
- “Protect our communities by bringing awareness to OSH Act Section 11c violations nationwide that pose a risk to community safety.”
At this time state and federal officials are investigating Weber’s claims. As the investigations remain open, Weber is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to continue to advocate for the safety of not only her fellow nurses but patients.