Union Leader Warned of COVID-19 Safety Issues, Called for Increased Worker Protections
Muskegon, MI – Shortly after doing multiple media interviews raising concerns about the hospital’s preparedness and the safety of RNs and health care professionals, local nurses’ union president Justin Howe, RN, was terminated from his position as a nurse at Mercy Health Partners’ Hackley Hospital. Mercy Health Partners is part of Trinity Health. The Michigan Nurses Association believes that Howe’s termination is a violation of federal labor law and has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
Howe’s termination came on the evening of April 3, days after he had publicly raised concerns about lack of appropriate PPE and the need for improved screening measures to keep nurses and healthcare workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same night, a few hours after terminating Howe, the hospital sent over a new policy to furlough workers.
“I really cannot think of anything more disgusting than a hospital firing a dedicated nurse like Justin in the height of a pandemic just because he was willing to speak out and hold them accountable,” said Jen Parks, BSN, RN, a Hackley nurse and the current acting president of the Hackley RN Staff Council, an affiliate of the Michigan Nurses Association. “I didn’t want to believe they would ever sink this low.”
“By firing Justin, Trinity’s executives are trying to send a message to all of us to shut up and get in line,” said Hasan Zahdeh, a tech at Hackley Hospital and president of the Michigan Union for Healthcare Workers. “Our hospital is run by people who don’t know what it’s like on the front lines. They don’t want to be accountable to the public and would prefer to try to scare workers than listen to our concerns.”
“I followed my conscience by advocating publicly for nurses and patients, and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Howe said. “Losing my job is devastating, but the consequences of not speaking out would be even worse. Lives are on the line.”
Howe is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and has been a nurse for nearly 7 years. He became engaged to his fiancée, a fellow union nurse at Hackley, earlier this year.
The stated reason for Howe’s termination was a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). After repeated requests from the Michigan Nurses Association in the two and a half weeks following Howe’s termination, the hospital’s administration has still not yet provided full documentation to support their claim. From what they have shown, their case appears to hinge on a new software program that nurses have been raising concerns about dating back to January. A few days following Howe’s termination for an alleged HIPAA violation, another MNA member who was on the union’s safety committee was also fired for the same stated reason. Both RNs have no previous disciplinary incidents listed on their current records.
Prior to Howe raising safety concerns publicly about the hospital’s response to COVID-19, the Michigan Nurses Association has no record of any termination of a nurse for an alleged HIPAA violation for at least the last three years.
Hackley Hospital recently began working with “labor consultants” with anti-union records. One of the consultants, Matt Patterson, has in the past reportedly compared organized labor to “an infection born by an invading union force.” (1)
Normally, because union members have just cause protections, a case like this would be brought before a neutral third-party arbitrator who would make a ruling. Nurses say they are confident that if the case were to be brought before an arbitrator, Howe would be reinstated. Due to the pandemic, arbitrations are currently delayed and a quick resolution under the normal time frame is considerably unlikely.
Nurses have worn “No Retaliation” stickers to protest Howe’s termination. “We all know that Justin is a dedicated nurse and strong advocate for our patients and profession. If they think that we are going to take this lying down, they have another thing coming,” said Parks. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure that we get justice. We will not back down.”
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The Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) is the largest, most effective union for RNs across the state. As the voice for all registered nurses in Michigan, MNA advocates for nurses and their patients at the Capitol, in the community, and at the bargaining table.
Contact: Amelia Dornbush, 517-896-7478