ELLSWORTH — A federal administrative law judge has ruled that Maine Coast Hospital engaged in unfair labor practices when it fired an employee for writing a letter to the editor that was critical of the hospital.
The judge also ruled that the hospital must offer the former employee, Karen-Jo Young, her job back and compensate her for lost wages.
In the fall of 2017, there was staff unrest at the institution then known as Maine Coast Memorial Hospital.
In the preceding months, several physicians had left the hospital, voluntarily or otherwise, because of disagreements over efforts by the hospital to renegotiate their employment contracts.
At the same time, nursing employees continued to express concerns over staffing levels that could affect patients, the result, in part, of an exodus of nurses from the hospital.
Ultimately, at least 60 employees signed a petition addressed to hospital leadership expressing their dissatisfaction.
The unsettled situation at coastal Maine’s primary health care facility prompted a series of articles in The Ellsworth American, which in turn drew a letter to the editor from the hospital’s longtime activities coordinator, Karen-Jo Young.
One day after the letter appeared in the newspaper’s online version, hospital President John Ronan fired Young for violating the hospital’s written “News Release External Publications and Media Policy” by writing the letter to The American.
In October 2017, Young filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the hospital fired her because she “engaged in protected concerted and union activity” and that the firing violated federal labor protection laws.
Early this month, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Paul Bogas found that the hospital had engaged in unfair labor practices in firing Young “discriminatorily” and ordered it to cease and desist from further unlawful conduct.
The judge also ruled that the hospital must offer Young “full and immediate reinstatement and make her whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits,” including back pay and to compensate her for any “adverse tax consequences.”
Young and the hospital — now known as Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital, a unit of Northern Light Health and formerly Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems — have until approximately Nov. 30 to file “exceptions” to the judge’s order.
Barring such filings, the order will become final upon formal approval by the members of the National Labor Relations Board.
The judge’s decision was highly critical of the hospital and its then leadership.
The National Labor Relations Act protects health care facility employees who act together “to protest deficiencies in staffing levels or other working conditions that have an effect on patient care” and that protection extends to letters to the editor or other third parties.
Sending the letter, supportive of the nursing union’s demand, was also protected “union activity” even though Young herself was not a union member, according to court documents.
The hospital argued on several grounds that Young’s letter writing was not entitled to protection but, the judge found, “none of the (hospital’s) contentions in this regard have merit.”
The judge also dismissed the hospital’s contention that Young’s letter contained “disparaging and untrue statements” and was unprotected, writing, “I find that the purpose of Young’s letter was not to impugn the (hospital’s) operation or to harm the (hospital’s) reputation or income, but rather to encourage improvements to working conditions.”
To the argument that Young’s letter was malicious and disloyal to the hospital and its leadership, the judge found that “(e)ven one with paper-thin skin cannot reasonably see these mildly expressed opinions” as “a personal attack unrelated to the employee’s protest.”
The court also found that the hospital’s media policy violated federal law.
First, the policy was not widely distributed among employees. Young testified that she didn’t know about the policy until it was used as a basis for firing her and even Ronan, the hospital president, testified that he was unaware of the policy until shortly before it became his justification for firing Young.
The judge also found that even had the policy been more widely known it would have violated the federal labor law because it prohibited employees from engaging in protected activities and “significantly burdens the exercise of (National Labor Relations Act) rights.
In January of this year, the hospital amended its media policy in an effort to cure its violation of the labor law but, the judge found, the amended policy still violates the employees’ federally protected rights. What’s more, the judge said, the hospital never “repudiated” its earlier policy, which it would have had to do to escape liability for its actions based on that earlier version.
Assuming the NLRB adopts the judge’s order, the hospital, in addition to its dealings with Young, will be required to cease and desist from preventing employees from communicating with the news media or obtaining prior permission to do so.
The hospital will also be required to post various notices in its facilities in Ellsworth and elsewhere relating to its unfair labor practices and advising employees of their rights under federal labor law to form a union and act collectively.