Cliff Willmeng, a nurse with 13 years of experience, was fired from his post at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota back in May. He ended up leaving the facility, which is owned by parent company Allina Health, after management told the nurses they had to wear their own scrubs and launder them at home during the pandemic. Willmeng refused, citing the inherent health risks to him and his family. In the end, the hospital decided to let him go.
But the ordeal isn’t over just yet.
At the end of November, his wife handed him a letter sent from the state’s nursing board. He looked inside to find out his conduct on the job is being investigated. If the board decides to take action against Willmeng and suspend his nursing license, he could be out of a job for good.
Bogarting Hospital Scrubs
Willmeng, a nurse, husband, and father, says it all started when he took a job at United Hospital in October 2019. Just a few months into his new position, the coronavirus pandemic broke out, with deadly consequences for him and his colleagues.
As cases started coming in, the hospital imposed new guidelines for nurses. They were told they had to bring in their own scrubs and wash them at home at the end of the day instead of wearing those issued by the hospital. Under the new policy, nurses risked bringing pieces of clothing exposed to COVID-19 into their homes, which could easily lead to the spread of the disease and other illness-causing pathogens.
Like many of his colleagues, Willmeng was outraged. He said the hospital had plenty of scrubs on hand, and it just didn’t want to take on the responsibility of washing them for their employees. In fact, he says nurses at Abbott Northwestern, another hospital in the state that’s owned by Allina Health, were allowed to wear hospital-issued scrubs on the job.
At the time, the facility told staff that the laundry co-op they use to wash clothes couldn’t keep up with demand. However, the co-op denied these claims.
For his part, Willmeng took up his concerns with management. He then filed several complaints with OSHA before enlisting the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA).
“He was taking action 100% to protect himself and to protect his patients,” said Brittany Livaccari, RN, an ER nurse, and union steward of MNA at United Hospital.
However, management chose not to reverse the policy, which they say was based on advice from the CDC during the early days of the pandemic. However, Willmeng continued to speak up regarding the potential safety issues, pointing to various emerging health reports that showed the potential risks of having staff wash infected uniforms at home.
“It did feel like a pissing match,” Livaccari said. “We didn’t feel like we were being protected. We weren’t being valued.”
Willmeng remained defiant by wearing hospital-issued scrubs instead of bringing in his own. Managers started writing up staff members who refused to comply with the policy.
“It definitely felt like an intimidation tactic: ‘You’re going to do this, you’re going to follow these policies,'” Livaccari said. “A lot of staff chose to stop wearing those scrubs because they needed their job, they have families to pay for, they were afraid.”
Filing a Whistleblower Complaint
Willmeng was then fired on May 8th for “violating hospital policies” and refusing to adhere to the facility’s “uniform code.” It was then that Willmeng realized he had to continue his work to protect the nurses still on staff at the facility. Two weeks after getting fired, he held a rally in the community which drew over 200 supporters.
Now, the nurse is suing parent company Allina Health for wrongful termination. The case is scheduled to be heard next August. He also filed a grievance with his union, which will be arbitrated in January.
Willmeng hasn’t stopped working just because he’s out of a job. He continues to report on his situation and other similar stories on Twitter and the website WeDoTheWork, a “worker-run journalism” outlet that’s affiliated with several prominent unions in the country.
“I believe in the working class, democratically run economy, socialism, and revolution,” he writes online.
He continues to apply to nursing jobs across the state, but he thinks he’s being blackballed for speaking out. “I’m not a bad nurse,” he said. Since putting his resume out there, he hasn’t been asked to interview at any of the roughly 20 medical centers he has applied to.
Under Board Review
After everything Willmeng has been through, he now has to face an investigation from the Minnesota Nursing Board, which could leave him without an active nursing license.
The letter from the board lists several incidents that are currently under review.
“On April 16, 2020, you received a written warning for not following the uniform policy,” reads one item. Another says, “On May 5, 2020, you were issued a final written warning for repeatedly violating policy.” And finally, “On May 8, 2020, you were terminated from employment based on violating hospital policies, behavioral expectations, code of conduct, and not following the directions of your manager.”
The letter then asked Willmeng to respond to eight questions about his time on the job.
The nurse says it looks like the board pulled all of this information right out of his HR file at the hospital where he used to work. He’s not sure who reported him to the board, but guesses it was United management, the same people who told him to bring his own scrubs to work.
In response, Allina Health issued a statement, saying “We cannot appropriately retain employees who willfully and repeatedly choose to violate hospital policies.” The company also maintains that it has been following CDC and MDH guidelines, “which do not consider hospital issued scrubs as PPE [personal protective equipment].”
Allina Health also says it was facing a massive scrubs shortage when it issued the policy.
However, Willmeng’s former colleagues continue to have his back. “Hospitals, they want a docile workforce, they want a workforce they can control,” said John Kauchick, RN, a retired 37-year nursing veteran who advocates for workers’ rights. They do so “by fear and intimidation,” he added. “A nurse’s number one fear is to be turned in to a board of nursing for anything.”
Willmeng says the company is making an example out of him to dissuade other nurses from speaking out.
Since receiving the letter, he has hired an attorney at $250 an hour. He also says he’s not sure if he feels safe going back to work at a facility that doesn’t value his health, assuming he still has a license when all is said and done.