BOSTON — The United States First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a decision by the National Labor Relations Board finding that Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, now Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital, violated federal labor laws by firing a nurse who wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the hospital administration amid a merger with Eastern Maine Health Care Systems (EMHS) in 2017.
The federal court issued its decision May 26.
Hospital spokeswoman Suzanne Spruce said the organization is disappointed by the court’s decision.
“While Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital will certainly abide by the court’s decision, we are nonetheless disappointed that the court declined to vacate the decision of the NLRB in its entirety,” said Spruce. “In our view, if the law provides an absolute shield to a subordinate employee who, with no basis in fact, publicly accuses her organization’s senior leadership, as well as certain of its board members, of dereliction of duty, then the law has gone too far and needs to be changed. Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital continues to take great pride in the fine care it has provided, and continues to provide, to the community in which it serves and, in particular, to the outstanding leadership provided by President John Ronan and his management team.”
The nurse, Karen Jo Young, was fired after the letter was printed in The Ellsworth American. The hospital cited a violation of its media policy in firing Young. Young is represented by Portland attorney Chad Hansen of the firm Maine Employee Rights Group. The American could not immediately reach Hansen for comment.
The federal court also affirmed the labor board’s ruling that the hospital had committed a separate violation by maintaining a media policy prohibiting contact between employees and the media.
However, the hospital did get a bit of relief.
The labor board had ordered the hospital to post notices at every EMHS facility where the original media policy was disseminated, including eight medical facilities that appear to be corporate entities separate from Northern Light Maine Coast. Those notices need only be posted at the Ellsworth hospital.
“We agree with MCMH that the board improperly extended its remedy to MCMH’s parent corporation, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (EHMS), which was not a party to the proceeding,” the federal court stated. “MCMH argues that EMHS was not a party to the proceedings, and that the board therefore exceeded its authority by compelling MCMH to take actions at those locations. We agree.”
The court provided background that led up to the hospital’s action against Young. “In 2015, in response to ongoing operating losses, MCMH reorganized with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (EMHS) as its sole corporate member,” the court stated. “EMHS is a healthcare network that maintains similar relationships with several other
hospitals in Maine. As part of the merger, EMHS installed its own employees in various management positions at MCMH.
“Following the merger, MCMH canceled the contracts of most physicians at the hospital, discharging some and forcing the remaining physicians to renegotiate their contracts, leading many to resign in protest. Around the same time, concerns about nurse staffing levels led to a new collective bargaining agreement with the nurses’ union. Despite the new agreement, understaffing caused by MCMH’s failure to replace departing nurses remained a problem for union members and others. Although they did not file formal grievances, the nurses protested by placing a sticky note on the locker of each departed nurse.
“Additionally, in 2017, leadership from the union presented a petition, signed by over sixty employees, to management. The petition bemoaned a lack of staffing, criticized the administration for inadequately supporting nurses and demanded specific changes to achieve compliance with the nurses’ contract and to address understaffing.”
Young, an activities coordinator in the rehabilitation area of the hospital, read articles and letters to the editor in The Ellsworth American, the appeals court stated. “In her own letter, she referenced the previous newspaper pieces and expressed support for the nurses and doctors in their respective labor disputes,” the decision stated. “She applauded the nurses for submitting their petition, urged management to heed the nurses’ staffing demands and opined that they were rightly concerned about risks to patient safety posed by understaffing. She also criticized management as unduly allegiant to EMHS and out of touch with patient care, arguing that these shortcomings negatively affected hospital staff and the local community.”