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January 30, 2004

Nurses file suit after parking debacle leaves 52 out of work

The Illinois Nurses Association (INA) filed a grievance this week on behalf of six nurses who were fired by the University Hospitals for parking without paying in a campus garage.

In addition, one of the hospital's dismissed employees has filed a lawsuit against the University, alleging that she did not steal parking. The lawsuit also claims that she and her fellow employees were fired to make room in the budget for a raise for which the hospital workers' union had recently successfully campaigned.

As reported in the Maroon on Tuesday, 52 hospital employees were sacked in late December and early January after hospital officials suspected they were using University IDs to exit the south garage without paying. Workers who parked without paying multiple times were fired summarily and were not given the opportunity to pay restitution, according to hospital spokesman John Easton.

Sheilah Garland-Olaniran, the INA labor representative for the hospital's nurses, confirmed that the INA had submitted the grievance papers and was planning to meet with the hospital's management within the next two weeks. "The case is currently under investigation by the INA, and we are developing our case," she said.

The contract that the nurses originally signed with the hospital stated seven conditions upon which an employee could be fired without warning, according to Garland-Olaniran. She does not believe that the actions of the fired nurses constituted a violation of their contract. "I don't think that [the hospital's decision] passed any of the tests for just cause," she said.

But Garland-Olaniran did not deny that the dismissed nurses had parked without payment.

"Quite frankly, we'd have a hard time proving that there wasn't theft, although I think it's pretty nasty of the University to elevate what I consider to be a policy violation to the level of theft," she said. "That's a nasty thing to put on somebody's record."

As reported in the January 27 article, Easton said that the fired employees had received notification of the hospital's parking policies in a memo dated January 8, before the workers were dismissed. However, fired employee Erica Phillips said she never received a memo and, if a memo was sent out, it was distributed after she lost her job.

Phillips claims that she actually did pay for parking and the hospital had ulterior motives for firing the 52 staff members. "I paid to park," she said. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime."

The hospital had to redistribute $4.5 million of the budget to make way for a staff raise, according to Phillips, who worked in the pharmacy department. Phillips, who was on the union negotiating team, said that there had not been a substantial raise for hospital employees in nearly a decade.

When she received her dismissal notice, Phillips could not believe the reasons that were given for her termination. "I was devastated and depressed. For the eight and-a-half years that I worked there I was a model employee," she said. "To be terminated for a parking violation when you paid to park is beyond me. I firmly believe that everything they did was about the hospital being in negotiations."

While she searches for a new place to work, Phillips has filed a lawsuit against the University for wrongful termination. Phillips believes that her firing has left an undeserved black mark on her record from which it will be difficult to recover. "It's hard to get a job after being terminated by the U of C—you get terminated from there, what hospital wants you on their budget? Give me a written warning or anything—but how do you terminate someone who was paying to park?"

Phillips said the firing was also suspicious because long-time, dedicated workers were terminated for alleged violations that they did not deserve to be dismissed for. According to Phillips, employees who had worked for the hospital for more than 30 years were fired on the grounds that they had stolen parking.

Linnita Carter, another fired nurse, was equally dismayed by the fact that so many dedicated nurses were let go without a warning. She argued that the hospital's policy on parking was never clear.

"There's a sign that says ‘Restricted Parking from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m" They never were clear on this rule that we had to be in after 5 p.m. It was very misleading," Carter said.

She added that because of the hospital's actions, many senior nurses interviewing for new jobs found themselves at a loss for words when trying to explain why they were fired.

"I have a degree, I worked at that hospital for 14 years, I am certified-and I cannot find a job because people suspect you must have done something really bad to get fired when they see how long you have been at an institution and how experienced you are. They can't believe it's just a parking situation. The real people who are guilty are OK. We're not. We're victims here and we're suffering," she said.

Amy Parker, an advanced practice nurse in the emergency room at the hospital who was not fired, said that the dismissed workers deserved to be fired. "These people were scamming the hospital. Stealing is stealing, that's the bottom line. Nurses really should be above this," she said.

"If the hospital had no proof whatsoever that they did do this, then it's not legitimate on the hospital's part; however, they should be fired if [the hospital] knew exactly what they did," she noted.

Carter said that the way the hospital dealt with the situation was unprofessional. "At least allow us to go out with dignity. If it was so important that they felt the need to terminate people, they could have at least provided a warning."

Most doctors roaming through the hospital remain clueless on the controversial matter, while most other employees, such as the cafeteria staff and the custodians, have discussed the issue. Still, most of them were hesitant to discuss the matter with the Maroon.

Garland-Olaniran said that the University community has sided with the fired nurses. "[The students] were interested in providing some sort of support," she said.

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