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Fired for Speaking Out or Going AWOL? NJ Nurse Fights to Be Reinstated

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Matt Witt, a nurse union leader at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, NJ, says he was fired in April of 2020 during the height of the pandemic for speaking out against the facility’s lack of PPE and other safety violations.

However, his employers argue they fired him because he disappeared in the middle of his shift when his colleagues needed him most. Now, Witt is fighting to get his job back at the facility and to restore his reputation in the healthcare field.

Fear and Uncertainty During the Pandemic

Witt says his employees were put in harm’s way during the early days of the pandemic. The New Jersey facility was among the worst hit in the U.S. when the virus first broke out on the East Coast last spring.

With few regulations in place and little understanding of the novel virus, “It was just sort of chaos,” Witt recalls. “What I saw more than frustration was just fear, and certainly sort of a vacuum of clear leadership on the part of the hospital,” he said.

Witt was concerned over the hospital’s decision to have staff reuse respirators on the job as PPE became increasingly scarce. He also questioned the way the facility conducted “fit tests” when securing the respirator on the person’s face to make sure there was no way for the virus to get in. Witt believes the process was faulty, leaving his workers vulnerable to the spread.

He added that the facility’s safety protocols would often change by the day.

“They’re like, ‘Yeah, absolutely, we would never use that equipment,’” he said. “The next day I came in…and my coworkers were using the exact equipment that the head of infectious disease for Hackensack Meridian had said, ‘No, no, no, we wouldn’t use that. That’s not appropriate.’”

Witt talked to his supervisor at the time, but he says the chief nursing officer eventually stopped speaking to him at work. He had to call managers on other floors when he had a concern.

“It was a series of roadblocks that they (had) thrown up in the weeks preceding my termination,” Witt said. “I think in these few weeks preceding my termination, they were unhappy with sort of the noise I was making.”

And Witt was making noise. He served as the local president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), a union representing healthcare workers in New Jersey, up until last December, when he decided to step aside. Using his influence, he was a frequent critic on social media of the facility’s safety practices. One post in particular was shared hundreds of times.

“I kept finding other ways to make some noise and things like that and try to get eyes on what was going on. And yeah, so then they fired me,” he said.

Dueling Narratives

Even as Witt spoke out publicly against the hospital in the weeks leading up to his termination, records show he was fired for taking a “union day.”

Witt says he had to represent a fellow nurse who was being disciplined over something they wrote on social media, so he asked his managers for a day off.

“I notified my managers that I was going to be using (a) union day. And they subsequently said, after the fact, that they had told me no,” he said.

The facility marked his absence as unexcused.

“I was just like, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Witt said. “But again…nothing sort of surprised me. I guess the levels that the hospital was willing to go to didn’t surprise me.”

The next week, flyers with his name and picture on it started popping up all over the hospital, telling staff to notify a supervisor if they see Witt on the premises. Security guards were told to watch out for the union leader as well.

“I had coworkers who were texting me because…it happened on April 1. And so they thought it was an April Fool’s Day thing,” Witt told reporters. “That’s sort of how I found out that there were flyers there.”

The hospital arranged a hearing for Witt, who says he had a clean record at the time. He was suspended on March 31st, 2020 and fired a few days after. Fourteen months later, he’s still fighting for his reinstatement.

The HPAE issued a message of support, writing, “Adam Witt was president of HPAE Local 5058. We believe he was unjustly fired. We are following our grievance process and we believe Adam will prevail.”

Witt says the facility’s recent safety violation is a testament to his cause.

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) hit Jersey Shore University Medical Center with several citations last October and December, with penalties totaling $38,555. 

The citation says PPE “was not provided wherever it was necessary…in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment.” Regulators also concluded that “The employer did not ensure a sufficient daily supply of isolation gowns were provided to this unit, resulting in the employees having to respond without gowns to care for COVID-19 positive patients in distress on or about 5/6/2020.”

“The (OSHA) ruling is significant, but the fines are pretty minimal,” Witt said, but real satisfaction would come with getting his job back.

 “In the same way that my arbitration has taken over a year to be heard, the system to support workers is stacked in the employer’s favor, especially when the employer has deep pockets.”

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