APPLETON – Seven health care workers will be able to start their new jobs at Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton after a judge dismissed a temporary restraining order Monday that was barring them from doing so at the request of their former employer, ThedaCare.
Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinnis ruled that ThedaCare’s arguments were not enough to uphold the injunction.
McGinnis said he signed the initial restraining order Friday because of the gravity of the situation that ThedaCare laid out in their complaint. Wisconsin statute says the court should give “substantial weight” to any adverse impact on public safety when deciding what to require in the order.
Lawyers for ThedaCare had argued the region would be in danger of not having health care for severely injured patients or people who had suffered strokes if the seven employees moved to Ascension for their Monday start date.
But after Monday’s hearing, McGinnis said ThedaCare could rely on alternate staffing solutions it already is pursuing to preserve care, including cross-training employees who do similar jobs at ThedaCare’s Appleton hospital.
The broader case, in which ThedaCare argues that Ascension inappropriately group-recruited these employees, will go forward in court, but the employees are free to begin their new jobs on Tuesday.
A lawyer for ThedaCare said the seven employees would be compensated for Monday’s missed work at the higher wage they would have had if they’d started as planned at Ascension.
Employees say ThedaCare’s actions were hurtful after years of service
Testimony on Monday from the employees, who worked together for years at ThedaCare’s Neenah hospital, described a tight-knit team of technicians and nurses who wanted a better work-life balance for themselves and their colleagues.
Kailey Young, a former interventional radiology technician at ThedaCare and the first of the group to apply to Ascension, said she had worked at ThedaCare for almost 11 years. She had planned to stay there, but became disgruntled last March when two other employees on her team were let go for reasons that she did not think were right.
At that point, she said, she began to look for other work. Because her position requires her to live within 30 minutes of the hospital, Ascension St. Elizabeth was her only other option. She applied for an open position at Ascension at the end of last year.
The offer she eventually received from Ascension will give her “life-changing money” and fewer weekends that she needed to be on call, making it easier for her to be at home with family, she said.
She encouraged the other three technicians on her team to apply for other open roles. When they each had received offers, they approached ThedaCare on Dec. 21 and asked if the hospital would match the offers.
They were told they would not be matched and that ThedaCare leadership understood the seriousness of losing all four technicians but was willing to let them go, Young said.
Young said on Monday she would not return to work at ThedaCare even if the injunction was upheld. It hurt to have her former employer argue that she and her colleagues don’t care about the good of the community, she said.
“Nobody cared about how magical what we do here was until today,” Young said.
Fellow technician Michael Preissner’s testimony largely echoed Young’s.
A few days before his last day at ThedaCare, Preissner said he’d been made an offer to stay that matched Ascension’s in pay, but not in the amount of time he’d have to be on-call, so he declined.
“This is not how you treat employees,” Preissner said Monday. When ThedaCare took legal action, he said, “my willingness to help them out died.”
Amber Kohler, a registered nurse who worked on the interventional radiology team and also applied and accepted a job at Ascension, said she did not know that the technicians on her team were leaving when she applied for the job. She submitted her resignation Dec. 29. Her last day Jan. 14.
On that day, Kohler testified, she was told that someone would reach out to her and her husband Andrew, also a nurse on the same team, about staying on and receiving a retention bonus. That conversation never came, she said.
“I’ve given my life to ThedaCare,” Kohler said. “They don’t care. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting in a court room right now after everything I’ve done for them.”
Each employee said Ascension had not asked them to coordinate their departure.
They declined to comment to the Post-Crescent on the ruling because the overall case is still pending.
McGinnis sides with Ascension, dismisses temporary restraining order
Sean Bosack and Daniel Flaherty, who argued the case for ThedaCare, maintained the health system’s earlier position that losing seven of 11 members of their interventional radiology and cardiovascular team would jeopardize the care of patients who needed high-level stroke and trauma support.
Bosack questioned Dr. Ray Georgen, who’s contracted with ThedaCare to oversee trauma medicine, and Lynn Detterman, president of ThedaCare-Neenah, about the impact of the staff members’ departures and what had been done to try to work out a solution.
Last year, 21 trauma patients and eight stroke patients were transferred from Ascension St. Elizabeth to ThedaCare-Neenah for a higher level of care that the hospital, which is a Level II trauma center and a comprehensive stroke center, can provide, Detterman said. Both she and Georgen said the transfers have never gone the opposite way.
In conversations to try to smooth the transition of the employees from ThedaCare to Ascension, Detterman said she was “shocked” to hear Ascension leaders say that trauma and stroke patients who couldn’t be treated at ThedaCare could be taken to hospitals with similar certifications in Green Bay. Those hospitals had been so full in recent weeks that they were turning away patients from the emergency room, she said.
In his closing argument, Flaherty asked McGinnis to consider the possibility of a patient dying during a transfer from Appleton to Green Bay, Milwaukee or Madison because St. Elizabeth was not able to care for them and ThedaCare-Neenah did not have the staff.
But Ascension attorney David Muth again argued ThedaCare had weeks to fix their problem, and in the week since many of the employees had their last day, had been able to piece together a solution that allowed them to keep offering high-level care.
“I have no clear understanding of why we’re having this hearing today,” Muth said in his closing argument.
Evidence presented Monday did not show that Ascension had sought to take the employees as a group, Muth said; instead it showed a normal hiring process that is “just how business and economy works.”
In his decision, McGinnis said the inability of the two health systems to come to an agreement without involving the court was “sad.” He called the employees “collateral damage” in a dispute between large corporations and said the community does not benefit if they are not able to go to work.
“They don’t want to be here (in court),” McGinnis said. “Somehow, we’ve put them here.”
A statement from an Ascension spokesperson Monday afternoon said the hospital welcomes its newest associates and was pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss the temporary restraining order.
In a Monday evening statement, Detterman, of ThedaCare, wrote that her organization has secured coverage in the short term to fill the now-missing roles and will continue the “significant, robust work” needed to find a long-term solution.
“We know this situation has put the employees who decided to leave ThedaCare in the middle of a difficult situation,” Detterman said in the statement. “Our goal was always to create a short-term orderly transition, not to force team members to continue working at ThedaCare.”