Northern Inyo Hospital’s slogan is “People You Know Caring for People You Love,” but many of its staff, past and present, are not feeling cared for or loved due to a recent, unannounced change in the way it enforces its employee medical leave policy.
Those NIH staff members crowded into the Dec. 19 Board of Directors meeting to voice concerns prompted by the recent, unexpected termination of one of its long-standing employees. The incident has caused a schism between staff and administration, creating a work environment many in attendance described as uncomfortably uncertain and uncharacteristically alienating.
Board President Pete Watercott rearranged the meeting agenda, moving public commentary from last to first to give ample opportunity for feedback. In light of the anticipated impassioned input, he asked that everyone in attendance “keep it civil” and limit individual comments to five minutes.
Medical Surgery Unit Ward Clerk Laurie Forehand broke the ice, couching her commentary in the details of the recent termination of Dee Dee Costello, who had been employed as a per diem Rural Health Clinic and ER registered nurse at NIH for 22 years. Costello was terminated because she exceeded the allowed 16 weeks of medical leave when “one surgery turned into two,” explained Forehand.
Currently, NIH employees are eligible for 12 weeks of medical leave per the federal Family Leave Act plus an additional four weeks which NIH allows, all of which is to run consecutively, EKG Technician Cindy Wahrenbrock later explained.
Historically, other employees have come back under circumstances similar to Costello’s, said Forehand, without experiencing this kind of repercussion. “The staff is shaken … Our jobs are at jeopardy” when policy takes precedence over performance, she said.
Forehand said that Costello had worked 509 hours this year, although she was only required to work 220.
Costello has been rehired effective Dec. 18 but she is now, quite literally, a new employee. Rehires stand to lose their accumulated raises, PTO (paid time off), retirement date and other benefits. “I am grateful to have my job back and I could have let this go, but we need to take a hard look at what’s been done. It’s wrong on many levels,” said Costello. “The hard look” Costello referred to would be directed at the “vague and obscure and suddenly-enforced (Family Leave Act) policy enacted in 1993.”
Personnel and Payroll Advisory Committee nursing staff representative Nita Eddy, a surgery technician who has worked with NIH for 24 years, said that policy changes used to come to PPAC to be discussed before they were made. (PPAC is an employee advocacy group and every department is represented by one of its members.) Eddy went on to say that the committee had briefly discussed the medical leave policy issue a year ago but no one informed them about this recent change in policy enforcement.
Eddy added, “We have lost sight of how I thought things were supposed to be done with the personnel committee. People were not informed.” NIH administration “didn’t get any staff input” prior to changing the status quo enforcement of the medical leave policy. “The committee isn’t being used as it should be. It needs to be a better process.”
Barbara Stuuhan, who retired from NIH in 2011 after 42 years, came to the board meeting to speak on behalf of the current staff. “I was out for four months several years ago and I didn’t have to go through this. It isn’t easy to get good employees and to train them … We are a family, people who have grown up in this hospital.”
NIH is about “‘People Helping People You Love,’” she continued, paraphrasing the hospital’s official slogan. “We need to find a middle ground … Why did this happen, why now,” Stuuhan concluded, asking the board if the decision was motivated by financial burden or insurance concerns.
Board President Watercott explained that, according to the Brown Act, the board can’t discuss or take action on non-agenda items unless they are placed on the agenda 72 hours prior to the board meeting – and this issue wasn’t.
Surgery Technician Chris Cauldwell said that Costello’s case has affected how she will seek medical treatment. Cauldwell recently had shoulder surgery and now needs esophageal surgery which would have required a two-week extension but she won’t ask for it out of fear of losing her job of 29 years, she said. And although she believes it is likely that she would be rehired, “even at the same pay, I’d be starting back as a new employee. It sucks and it’s not fair.” As things stand now, said Stuuhan, who is also Cauldwell’s mother, her daughter must wait until next September before she can get surgery that she needs now.
Martha Reynolds, a 35-year NIH veteran nurse and insurance utilization reviewer, said that administration’s treatment of Costello has brought “ill will” and that NIH “can’t possibly save enough money” to make its actions worthwhile. Reynolds also voiced questions about the motivation behind the change in policy enforcement.
Another 30-year veteran employee said, “I felt stabbed in the back” and very concerned about the possibility of “losing all my paid time off” in the event of termination and rehire. “Get rid of this idea that you have to get rid of us,” she told the board. “Don’t do this. (You’ve) created a big deficit.”
Costello’s husband, Chris, said that all of her work evaluations have been excellent. And, “you didn’t have to be there when she had to write the reason for leaving NIH is termination. It could be on her record for life. Does this board have the authority to reverse the termination? Does she have any legal recourse?”
District legal counsel Doug Buchanan reminded the audience that “no action shall be taken or discussed unless it’s on the agenda. It’s not an atomic secret to be put on the agenda.”
Wahrenbrock read NIH’s slogan and its mission statement and then suggested possible solutions to the medical leave policy brouhaha. Among them were: provide a catastrophic insurance policy for retirees, for per diem employees and for employees that are out on extended medical leave; allow employees to donate to a PTO bank upon which other employees can draw if they run out of PTO; and “allow employees to use the resources that they’ve built up,” which currently cannot be used as medical leave that exceeds 16 weeks. She added that retirees don’t even have a medical insurance policy after working for a hospital.
“These are things we could do because we are a family and we should be taking care of one another,” said Wahrenbrock. “To treat someone who has taken care of patients for that long in this way is, well, embarrassing.”
Watercott said that “maybe groundwork can be brought to the board.” An audience member asked, “Can you commit to putting this on the agenda?” NIH Administrator and Chief Financial Officer John Halfen replied, “I have never not put anything on the agenda that I’ve been asked to.”
Costello asked why the letter she wrote to administration regarding her termination was not put on the agenda. Halfen said that the letter didn’t request that the issue be “agendized … Just ask and it gets put on.”
“Someone could have called Dee Dee,” said Wahrenbrock after the meeting. “There’s no communication, nothing, that’s proof of that.”
A plan of communication could now be in the offing, however. Board Vice President Dr. John Ungersma invited staff to compile a list, “something that fits (your needs),” and present it to Halfen. (Halfen was unavailable for additional comment as he was out of town.)
Eddy later said that she had gone through the chain of command prior to the Dec. 19 board meeting, voicing all of her concerns to Surgery Manager Phyllis Meneses and Director of Nursing Sharon Tourville. Eddy, Tourville and Human Resources Director Georgan Stottlemyre “will be working together to answer all of the nursing staff question. They have assured me they will address all concerns,” which will discussed at the next PPAC be meeting. Findings will be presented to the administration on Jan. 15 and to the board on Jan. 16.
The Northern Inyo Hospital Board of Directors meets at 5:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Birch Street Annex, located 2957 Birch St., Bishop.