ELLSWORTH — A woman who worked at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital (MCMH) for more than 13 years was fired last Thursday after her letter to the editor ran in The Ellsworth American.
Karen Jo Young, a Corea resident, most recently worked in the rehab department at MCMH. She spent 10 years as activities director in the swing bed unit before that. She said she loved working at the hospital but felt that things had gone downhill in recent years, especially since Maine Coast joined forces with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (EMHS) in 2015.
She submitted a letter to the editor on Sept. 17. It appeared in the Sept. 21 edition of The American under the title “Unrest at MCMH not a surprise.” In it, she said a recent spate of doctors departing the hospital is causing “unrest, uncertainty and concern among the staff, patients and the community.”
Young also criticized hospital administrators “who work out of their offices and have meeting after meeting and who are not working where patients are being cared for.”
The edition with Young’s letter hit local newsstands on the afternoon of Sept. 20. The next morning, she said she was called down to a meeting in the administrative building.
Present for the meeting were a note taker, Young’s department head and Noah Lundy, regional human resources director for EMHS covering Maine Coast and Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.
Young was given a letter and told she was fired. The complete text of the letter she received is as follows:
“Dear Karen-Jo: This is to inform you that your employment is being terminated effective immediately for violation of EMHS Policy: News Release, External Publication and Media and in accordance with Maine Coast Memorial Hospital (MCMH) progressive disciplinary policy. I regret this action is necessary.”
The letter was signed by Lundy.
Young said getting fired took her by surprise.
“I really thought they would just ignore it,” she said, referring to hospital administrators and her letter. “But they don’t operate that way.”
Young said she did not feel valued as a hospital employee in recent years. She said she voiced concerns about patient safety and other issues inside the hospital prior to writing her letter. In some cases, she said, her concerns were ignored and in other instances she said she was rebuked.
“I did notice, once it switched to EMHS, that it really was, ‘Step in line,’” Young said. “They don’t like you to speak out about anything.”
Maine Coast and EMHS officials declined to provide The American with a copy of the policy that Young was said to have violated. The hospital also declined to address the issue of Young’s firing, saying it was a personnel matter.
“We do not share our policies as related to personnel, business, or other matters,” said Kelley Columber, director of communications for the Blue Hill and Ellsworth hospitals.
Asked Tuesday about Young’s firing, EMHS President and CEO Michelle Hood said she understood it was a result of Young violating the policy referenced in the letter she received.
“We have a policy that directs employees who want to have a public position to work with our community relations folks, and that was not followed,” Hood said.
The American obtained a copy of the “News Release, External Publication, and Media Contact” policy from Mercy Hospital in Portland, which is also an EMHS member. Though some of the language in it is specific to Mercy, it also refers to EMHS employees and says its applicability is “EMHS member-wide.”
The policy states “all news releases, media contacts, outreach and externally directed publications … relating to Mercy Hospital, EMHS and its member organizations” shall come from either the hospital’s or system’s communications staff.
The policy goes on to state that “in no case should a Mercy Hospital employee contact the news media on his/her own initiative regarding patient information or hospital business.”
Does an employee of a hospital or any business have a First Amendment right to free expression? Possibly not. A 2015 article in an American Bar Association magazine suggests otherwise.
In “A Chill Around the Water Cooler: First Amendment in the Workplace,” University of Dayton School of Law professor Jeannette Cox wrote that “to keep your job, you often can’t say what you like.”
The key reason for that, she said, is because the First Amendment only restrains the government — not private businesses — from placing restrictions on what people can and cannot say.
“Most workers have no protection from speech-related termination unless they can prove that their employer’s motive for firing them violates a federal, state or local law,” Cox wrote.
Cox said she thinks that is a bad situation, one that “creates a chilling effect that both dampens individual self-expression and inhibits public discourse.”
Businesses should be entitled to “a certain degree of employer control over employee speech,” Cox wrote. That includes protecting propriety information and barring speech seen as bullying or harassing.
“In most circumstances, however, the average employee’s speech poses little risk of harm to the employer,” Cox concluded. “The harm to the employee created by an employer’s ability to punish speech, by contrast, is significant.”
Young said she is not sure yet what action, if any, she may take in the wake of her firing.
“I’m in the process of seeking legal advice,” she said Tuesday.