WhidbeyHealth workers claim ‘hostile’ work environment at hospital

WhidbeyHealth Medical Center employees with the diagnostic imaging department warned health district commissioners last week that patient care could be jeopardized because of a “hostile work environment that exudes distrust, harassment, stress and fear.”

Patient safety is being put at risk, they said, because of the department’s deteriorating morale, high turnover, long shifts and inconsistent shift schedule that doesn’t allow for two consecutive days off.

For 45 minutes at Monday’s meeting, WhidbeyHealth administrators and Board of Health Commissioners heard from nine employees who said they live in fear of being written up, investigated and fired by a manager hired less than two years ago.

Union representative Aaron Brickman of UFCW Local 21 said he brought complaints to the board because petitions and letters delivered to hospital administration failed to resolve the issues.

Instead, the petition submitted in November resulted in “a sharp increase in the number of investigatory and disciplinary meetings I’ve been asked to attend,” he said.

The petition cites staffing, communication and the proposed restructure as needing to be addressed because the “ongoing issues are obstructing our ability to provide the care our community deserves.”

“It is my belief that these meetings are retaliatory in nature,” Brickman said, adding he’d prefer to “see things deescalate” rather than pursue legal action with the Public Employee Relation Commission.

The diagnostic imaging department includes technologists who are trained in providing patient x-rays, mammograms, ultrasound, bone scans, MRIs, nuclear imaging and other services. They are needed around-the clock for inpatient, outpatient, emergency and surgical care.

Some technicians pointed to the health care industry’s increasing emphasis on data, trends and tracking as leading to excessive documentation that takes longer to do than actual hands-on care.

Complaints came from new employees, long-term employees, even a former employee.

Ann Merriman, qualified in several imaging areas, said she’d originally planned to stay in the area two years. But the hospital’s cross-training opportunities and sense of camaraderie among co-workers made her job and life so enjoyable, she’s been here almost 20 years.

All that changed, however, in July of 2014, when a new manager was hired “who has turned our department upside down,” Merriman told the board.

“He has made our job workflow incredibly overwhelming with so many extra, redundant steps,” Merriman said. “… It takes us longer to document, scan in paperwork, and get a study sent off to the radiologist than it does to do the exam.”

Kiley Meszaros who has worked in Whidbey radiology for only 15 months, said more than half of the technicians she started with are gone.

“We feel like our jobs are underneath a microscope, that our jobs are on the line if we make a mistake and we have no positive feedback from our management team, only input on what we are doing wrong,” Meszaros said.

Following the meeting, Board President Ron Wallin said that he plans to meet with WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes and Cindy Paget, chief Human Resources Officer.

“We’ll meet with Geri and Cindy and get to the bottom of this,” he said. “We’ve known there’s an issue and we need to talk about it.”

Forbes also pledged to look into the matter.

“I appreciate that they came forward to share their concerns and we’ll be reviewing what has been taking place,” Forbes said.

“We know they filed a petition. We’ll go back and re-investigate.”

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