Company fires employees who didn’t work during Irma. Then, rehires them

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Lee Health fired Patricia Ney because she left when Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida. Thursday, a supervisor called her, asking if she’d take her job back.

Lee Health, the largest employer in Lee County, Fla., is scrambling to rehire the employees it decided to release from duty after they failed to show for Irma and its aftermath.

Among them is Ney, a 56-year-old with a career spanning more than three decades.

“They did the right thing,” Ney said.

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It is unclear how many employees were fired because the hospital was still accumulating numbers of how many were released from duty, said hospital system spokeswoman Mary Briggs.

The hospital system’s emergency preparedness plan in case of hurricanes is called “Code Brown.” During hurricanes, essential employees are grouped into two groups – A and B. Group A staffs the hospital during the storm and Group B takes over after to relieve the first staff workers.

Ney was part of Group A, but the day after Labor Day she went to Pennsylvania on a previously planned trip. At the time, Irma was forecasted to hit the east coast of Florida, but the cyclone surprised all by going west instead.

Under the previous guidelines for Code Brown situations, employees who did not go to work were placed under corrective actions and in some circumstances fired.

But because Irma was so remarkably unpredictable and affected large swaths of the state, Briggs said the guidelines will be tweaked allowing those employees to return to work.

“We have leaders that were doing what they thought they were supposed to do,” Briggs said. “Many of those employees will be reinstated.”

Homes are turned into islands Sept. 12, two days after hurricane Irma passed through the Lehigh Acres area outside Fort Myers, Fla. (Photo: Rodney White, Michael Zamora, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press)

Briggs said it’s important to have the hospital staffed during emergencies. The hospitals offer employees the opportunity to shelter in their facility and bring their families and pets, she said.

Employees who contacted their supervisors and communicated they couldn’t be at work will be rehired, she said. But those who did not will continue through with their corrective plans.

“That’s why the policies are set the way they are, but we also recognize the storm was different and you have the governor telling everyone to get out,” Briggs said.

While the hospital system has not provided a number for affected employees, a local attorney said he has heard from at least half a dozen. He plans to represent some of them.

“Some of them (nurses) are still in limbo,” said James Brantley, a labor and employment attorney with the Law Firm of Donnelly and Gross. “The hospital is taking their time with these decisions.”

Ney said management was unaware she planned a trip during her off-time prior to Irma’s arrival. While she was away the hospital system initiated a Code Brown.

Ney purchased a return ticket to Fort Myers for the Monday after the storm, but the flight was canceled.

“There were no flights anywhere coming to Fort Myers,” Ney said. We decided just to get in the car and go.”

But by then, Ney and her husband were stuck in the returning traffic of evacuees who had fled the storm via the state’s highways.

“Traffic was bad,” she said. “Gas was hard to find. There were no hotels.”

Brantley called this a “very unique” situation where “the hospital, I’m being told, is telling people you shouldn’t have evacuated.”

“It’s a very cold-hearted approach,” Brantley said. “It’s an authoritarian dictatorship. They feel they can do whatever they want to do. When you are the only game in town you wield a lot of power in regard to employment.”

Brantley questioned whether it was possible for so many people to be fired without leadership knowing what was going on.

“In the wake of a storm like this, why was the first thing on the agenda when returning from a storm to fire people,” Brantley said. “I think it’s pretty embarrassing and I think they are backtracking now.”

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Jason Bent, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said employees in Florida have few protections from their employers.

“If they are not unionized and they don’t have a contract that protects them individually they can be fired for any reason and they have no protection in Florida,” Bent said.

Terrence Connor, a professor at the School of Law at the University of Miami, said the hospital might have a public relations issue, but they were well within their right to fire their employees.

“By and large you start from the proposition that employees are at will so they can be fired or they can leave whenever they choose,” Connor said. “Right now from all reports there’s kind of a shortage of nurses, but there are a lot of people to sympathize with this last week. and the people running the hospital and delivering healthcare is one and the nurses that are stuck by downed trees and downed planes is one.”

“It’s a tough situation for all sides.”

See Lee Health’s full statement on news-press.com.

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