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NIH reinstates nurse, launches policy overhaul

January 18, 2013

More than 60 people crowded the Birch Street Annex conference room for the Jan. 16 Northern Inyo Hospital Board of Directors meeting. Many were there in support of Dee Dee Costello who was terminated and rehired in 2012 due to an extended medical leave. Photo by Marilyn Blake Philip

In an effort to heal internal wounds, Northern Inyo Hospital acknowledged its error, reinstated an employee and began plans for long-term personnel policy revisions.
At the Jan. 16 NIH Board of Directors meeting, many NIH employees and supporters of Donise “Dee Dee” Costello crowded the conference room to standing-room-only capacity. Costello, NIH per diem Rural Health Clinic and ER registered nurse, was terminated in October 2012 due to a medical leave of absence that exceeded 16 weeks. NIH subsequently rehired Costello in December 2012 with the status of a new hire; her 22 years of service had been wiped from her record. This was unacceptable, and not only to Costello. Dozens of NIH personnel attended the Dec. 19 board meeting to support her, with many testifying to strong feelings of unrest, ill-will and fear-run-rampant among NIH staff.
Costello initiated discussion of the agenda item last Wednesday regarding the board’s reconsideration of her termination.
“Numerous people have been out (on longer periods of medical leave) without these repercussions.” She went on to say that “once the policy was unearthed, it was rather vague and ambiguous.” Costello closed, saying, “It was wrong, I don’t want it on my record. I was terminated. I want it revoked. If you are going to enforce the policy, make it clear – give a start date when you will enforce it differently than it had been enforced in the past.”
NIH’s length-of-medical-leave policy is based on the 12 weeks of medical leave per the federal Family Leave Act of 1993. “Federal policy is so broad that we added extra four weeks” for unplanned circumstances, NIH Chief Executive Officer/Chief Financial Officer John Halfen said, bringing the allowed medical leave period to 16 weeks.
Board of Directors President John Ungersma agreed with Costello. The policy was last revised 10 years ago and “I must admit, it is very vague and difficult to understand.” Ungersma then suggested that the employees work with administration through their Personnel and Payroll Advisory Committee to present a policy proposal that works for the employees. Halfen said that although PPAC had started to revise all policy manuals, “it was a death sentence” from the start. The process broke down one-third of the way through. “It’s an incredibly tough job to get through.”
One gallery member said the medical leave policy doesn’t mandate termination for exceeding 16 weeks and that she saw the issue “as a change in interpretation, not a change in enforcement.” The personnel policy does state that employees who are off work for 30 days will receive a new anniversary (or hire) date, Halfen said.
That notwithstanding, one audience member wanted to know why enforcement of the medical leave policy suddenly changed. Halfen explained that since 2010, six employees have been terminated and NIH received several inquiries from former employees’ attorneys. In one case, “they tried to go after the hospital for money. Fortunately, those went away because they were baseless,” Halfen said. However, administration decided it was time to begin strictly enforcing the medical leave policy.
Furthermore, Halfen explained that an unrestricted medical leave policy would present a cumulative financial burden on the hospital. NIH is self-insured. “I’m not going to let the hospital go bankrupt.”
Halfen admitted that management had fallen short in its management of the medical leave policy. It has been incumbent on hospital managers to manage medical leaves, to give employees notices, in short, “to do what’s policy. We are now.” Recently, a notice to that effect went out to the NIH staff.
Surgery Technician Chris Cauldwell asked if a middle ground could be established for employees needing more than 16 weeks of leave so they “don’t go back to zero as a start date. I’ve been a good employee … It means something to me to have to go back to zero.” NIH retiree Barbara Stuuhan added that, especially with orthopedic surgeries, coming back after four months of recuperation is “pushing it” with nurses “lifting 35-pound trays.”
In his “last mea culpa,” Halfen said, “Without question, we weren’t doing it right before. We’re doing it right now.”
Costello’s attending physician, Dr. Jennifer Scott, said, “I was personally and professionally hurt” by the decision to terminate Costello or at the thought of “the job loss to any patient under my care.” There were “unanticipated complications” outside of her control in Costello’s case but that if she had known of the policy enforcement change, she could possibly have done “things differently” to accommodate it. “If it could happen to Dee Dee, it could happen to any of us,” Scott added.
Ungersma again suggested a collaborative effort between personnel and administration to change the policy to everyone’s satisfaction. “We should look at other rural hospitals.”
Halfen pointed out that the process is going to take time although it needs to be done by the end of 2013. In the meantime, to “buy time and fix the wounds that have occurred,” he suggested that Costello be reinstated rather than terminated and rehired. The gallery erupted in applause. “So my start date is 1990” again, Costello asked. Human Resources Director Georgan Stottlemyre replied, “If reinstated, yes.” “Then that’s great,” a visibly emotional and widely-grinning Costello responded, to another round of applause.
The board passed Board Vice President M.C. Hubbard’s motion to reinstate, not terminate, employees who are out for more than 16 weeks of medical leave and to reinstate Costello and erase “ termination” from her record.

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