OPINION: Bosses don’t own employees

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By BRIAN YOUNG

When someone decides to take a job, should the employer be able to prevent them from quitting that job? That question is playing out in the courts in Wisconsin as a hospital is trying to prevent some of its employees from quitting.

The hospital, ThedaCare, asked Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinnis to temporarily block seven of its employees from quitting their jobs at ThedaCare and taking another positions at a rival hospital, Ascension. They wanted the employees to be prevented from quitting until ThedaCare could hire people to replace them.

The seven employees are part of an 11-member interventional radiology and cardiovascular team that does things like performing procedures to stop bleeding in targeted areas during a traumatic injury or restoring blood flow to the brain in case of a stroke. All of them are employed at will, meaning they are not working under a collective bargaining agreement and are free to leave or be fired at any time.

In a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 20, McGinnis issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited the workers from leaving and then held an initial hearing on Friday. With the employees hoping to leave and start new jobs on Monday, the judge worked with both sides to attempt to work out a temporary agreement. When an agreement could not be reached, McGinnis decided to rule on Monday that the employees could start their new jobs at Ascension.

TEST CASE OF THE GREAT RESIGNATION
The case served as an important test case for an employer’s ability to prevent workers from leaving during the Great Resignation.

In this case, ThedaCare argued that a competing hospital “poached” workers during a stressful time for healthcare. ThedaCare has seen an increase in admissions to the hospital due to COVID-19 and has been forced to cancel non-emergency surgeries to accommodate the added patients. They also argued that losing the majority of the team put patients at risk. However, Ascension argued that they didn’t poach the employees, but rather the employees applied to an open job posting and that ThedaCare was given the ability to make a counter-offer but refused to do so.

It is also not like these employees decided last week to quit. Instead, four of the employees put in their notice on Dec. 21, while two more gave it on Dec. 29 and a final nurse let them know on Jan. 7. With over a month to replace some of the workers, ThedaCare appears to have failed to take the crisis seriously and chose instead to sue to force the employees to work at a facility that they no longer wanted to be a part of.

BETTER PAY AND BENEFITS
According to David Muth, who represented Ascension in the case, the employees were given a much better benefits package than what ThedaCare was offering. This was supported by a letter from one of the employees, Timothy Breister, to the judge that said one of their colleagues received an offer that was attractive “not just in pay but also a better work/life balance.” Breister said once the team found out about the offer, six other employees decided to apply. He went on to say that after Ascension made the offer, the group gave ThedaCare the ability to match it but they were told: “the long-term expense to ThedaCare was not worth the short-term cost.” No counter-offer was made.

Staffing in the medical field has been especially difficult in recent months as COVID-19 has led to healthcare workers not only getting sick, but also burning out from the long hours and constant threat of sickness and death. Many hospitals have taken to offering big bonuses to attract talent and using temporary or traveling nurse and healthcare worker agencies. With companies willing to offer higher wages, many lower-paying healthcare companies are finding it difficult to find talented staff who are willing to work for lesser wages and benefits.

EMPLOYERS DO NOT OWN WORKERS
The case is also an important reminder that employers do not own workers. With a tight labor market, workers are using this opportunity to hold their bosses accountable and are able to leave if their bosses are not willing to offer them better wages and benefits.

Many workers, especially young ones, have not seen their wages over the last decade keep up with wage increases from past decades, while prices for things like housing continue to skyrocket. This has led many to take advantage of the tight labor market and put their talent on the open market to be hired by the highest bidder, much like these seven workers have done.

Over the last few years, employers have seemed to forget that while they bring their product or service to market, workers’ labor is their commodity, and just like the boss can set a price for their service, workers can set a price for their labor.

(Brian Young is a communications consultant and blogger with UCOMM Media Group. Reprinted from UCOMM Blog.)

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