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APPLETON – It was unclear whether a group of former ThedaCare employees would be allowed to start their new jobs at Ascension Northeast Wisconsin Monday after lawyers for both health systems made their first appearance in court Friday morning.
The uncertainty is the latest development in a battle over health care employees that began late Thursday and is now playing out in court. It comes as staff shortages strain health systems nationwide — nearly one in five health care workers have quit their jobs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What happened to stop the employees from starting their new job?
ThedaCare requested Thursday that an Outagamie County judge temporarily block seven of its employees who had applied for and accepted jobs at Ascension from beginning work there on Monday until the health system could find replacements for them.
Who are the health care workers?
The employees were part of an 11-member interventional radiology and cardiovascular team, which can perform procedures to stop bleeding in targeted areas during a traumatic injury or restore blood flow to the brain in the case of a stroke. Each of them were employed at-will, meaning they were not under an obligation to stay at ThedaCare for a certain amount of time.
Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinnis granted ThedaCare’s request and held an initial hearing Friday morning. The case will get a longer hearing at 10 a.m. Monday.
McGinnis told lawyers for both health systems they should try to work out a temporary agreement by the end of the day Friday about the employees’ status until Monday’s hearing.
Otherwise, he said, the order prohibiting them from going to work at Ascension would be final until a further ruling was made. That means the seven health care workers would not be working at either hospital on Monday.
“To me, that is a poor result for everyone involved,” McGinnis said.
Why is ThedaCare taking legal action?
In the complaint, lawyers for ThedaCare wrote that Ascension had “shockingly” chosen to “poach” the employees during a stressful time for health care. More COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in the Fox Valley now than at any other time during the pandemic, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association data, and ThedaCare has canceled non-emergency surgeries to make space.
A Thursday statement from Ascension said the employees were not recruited but instead decided to apply for open job postings. It was Ascension’s understanding that ThedaCare had the opportunity to make counter-offers but declined, the statement said.
Attorney Sean Bosack, who represented ThedaCare Friday, argued that losing the majority of these employees poses a health threat to the region because the health system’s Neenah hospital is a hub for high-level stroke care and care for patients with traumatic injuries.
Where is ThedaCare-Neenah and Ascension St. Elizabeth hospitals?
ThedaCare-Neenah is a Level II Trauma Center, part of which means they have specialists like interventional radiologists available regularly to treat patients. Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital, a Level III Trauma Center, can provide initial support to trauma patients and is able to transfer them to ThedaCare-Neenah for more care, according to definitions from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
ThedaCare’s Neenah facility is also a Comprehensive Stroke Center, which also means having specialists available regularly. Ascension St. Elizabeth is a Primary Stroke Center, a designation which does not stipulate having those staff available around the clock.
In the time it takes to divert a local patient in need of emergency care for a stroke or trauma to another similarly certified hospital, Bosack said, the patient could die.
Attorney David Muth, who represented Ascension Friday, said their hospital was capable of caring for such patients in the event that it was necessary even though they are not designated at the same level as ThedaCare.
Muth argued that ThedaCare had weeks to come up with better offers to keep their employees or figure out alternate staffing solutions and instead chose to initiate court action days before the workers were set to start at Ascension, resulting in “a mess of ThedaCare’s own making.”
In the complaint, ThedaCare attorneys wrote that the organization found out Dec. 21 that four interventional radiology technicians had accepted offers with Ascension, and learned Dec. 29 that two nurses planned to make the same move. On Jan. 7, they learned one additional nurse planned to quit and work at Ascension.
Ascension had offered the employees a better benefits package that ThedaCare did not match, Muth said.
Timothy Breister, an Appleton resident and one of the seven employees involved in the systems’ dispute, submitted a letter to McGinnis Friday before the hearing describing his experience.
One of his colleagues received an offer from Ascension that was attractive “not just in pay but also a better work/life balance,” which caused others on his team to apply, Breister wrote.
After approaching ThedaCare with the chance to match the offers they’d been given, Breister wrote that they were told “the long term expense to ThedaCare was not worth the short term cost,” and no counter-offer would be made.