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Did a Hospital Use the COVID-19 Pandemic as an Excuse to Fire A Pregnant Nurse?

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Taking time away from work when you’re a nurse isn’t always easy, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Nurse anesthetist Maria DiMattio applied for maternity leave in early March 2020, but by mid-April, the hospital had informed her that she was being permanently laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

DiMattio claims that the hospital violated her civil rights and used the pandemic as a pretext for getting rid of her. Last week, she filed a federal discrimination complaint against the facility, but it’s not clear yet if the law is on her side.

Standing Up for Her Right to Employment

DiMattio used the Family Medical Leave Act to take parental leave from Penn Highlands Healthcare’s DuBois Regional Medical Center right before the nation went on lockdown last year. A few weeks later, she and several of her colleagues were let go. She claims the facility kept less-qualified male nurses on staff instead and paid them more per hour to temporarily replace her on the floor until they could find a permanent replacement with similar skills.

The complaint reads, “Plaintiff believes and avers that the purported reason for her termination is completely pretextual and that she was really terminated because of her gender, pregnancy, and/or use of protected leave under the FMLA.”

The FMLA grants 12 work weeks of leave to mothers giving birth and those caring for a newborn up to one year after birth. It also applies to those caring for foster children, a spouse, parent, and those suffering from a serious health condition.

DiMattio believes the hospital violated her rights under the FMLA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and national origin.

Was It Discrimination?

As an experienced CRNA, DiMattio says she’s been working at DuBois Regional Medical Center since 2016 and has received positive performance reviews.

However, she says she experienced gender discrimination on the job, including one moment in which a male supervisor told her before her first day on the job that he had “two bitches” in his department, including another female CRNA that was eventually laid off.

She says her supervisors were all men and selectively enforced policies, choosing to punish female workers over their male colleagues. She also claims the facility gave preferential treatment to male nurses when it came to scheduling overtime.

When she first learned she was pregnant in August 2019, she told her supervisors that she would be taking 12 weeks off from work when her child was born. Her departure was slated for March 6th, 2020, just a few days before the entire nation went into quarantine.

On April 15th, human resources informed her that she was being laid off due to the pandemic; she soon noticed that layoffs seemed to disproportionately affect her female colleagues.

“There were a total of four CRNAs (including DiMattio) who were permanently laid off on or about the same date,” the complaint reads. “While other individuals were furloughed during this time, they were (upon information and belief) recalled. All four CRNAs who were laid off permanently on or about April 15, 2020 were female.”

All four of the CRNAs who were dismissed had more experience and seniority than those that stayed on the job, the suit alleges. DiMattio points to the fact that the hospital gave her a different reason for firing her when she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as further evidence that the pandemic was just a pretext for letting her go. The facility reportedly told the EEOC that they fired DiMattio because she told them in August of 2019 that she was taking a job in Pittsburgh. 

The complaint reads, “Plaintiff (DiMattio) simply inquired in or about October of 2019 whether she would be required to return from maternity leave for any specific amount of time, as she was considering moving to Pittsburgh. Plaintiff never submitted a resignation letter or confirmed with anyone that she was moving to Pittsburgh or had accepted a job there.”

The hospital said it doesn’t comment on pending legal matters, but added, “Our top priority is and always will be our employees, physician partners and our patients.”

The complaint has yet to be assigned a unique case number, according to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and DiMattio isn’t backing down any time soon.

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