Three of the four registered nurses employed at Morris deCastro Clinic on St. John have been on sick leave since the end of August to avoid working with the clinic’s administrator, the latest in a string of personnel troubles for the facility.
The fourth is also off the job, but she said she found out when she returned to work from vacation in early September that she lost her job. She said she’s filed a grievance.
“One person cannot continue to cause problems. We have to provide the services,” St. John Administrator Leona Smith said.
None of the Morris deCastro current and former staff members wanted their names used. Several said the Health Department doesn’t allow them to speak to the media so they can’t bring this issue to light if they are identified.
Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster sent the following statement to the Source.
“We are very sensitive to the healthcare concerns of our employees and will extend to them every courtesy when it comes to their health, welfare and safety. However, their concerns must be balanced against the needs of our residents,” the statement indicated.
It continued that the “suspect medical excuses” are an orchestrated effort to disrupt services at the clinic. Further, it says that the nurses’ collective bargaining agreement prevents job actions, including sickouts. Subsequently, the statement indicates if the nurses don’t return to work immediately, they will be terminated.
With the registered nurses out sick, the Mental Health, Immunization and Public Health programs within the Health Department now have no one permanently assigned to St. John on the job. Women’s Health has only a licensed practical nurse on duty, but a nurse and a staff member said she can only provide very limited services since the registered nurse is not there to supervise her.
The nurse who wasn’t rehired said the Health Department sends a licensed practical nurse over from St. Thomas every day to fill in for the absent mental health nurse. However, as in the case with Women’s Health, she said that licensed practical nurse isn’t supposed to work without a registered nurse supervising her.
Someone has come from St. Thomas one day a week for the past couple of weeks to provide immunization services, the nurse said, but this means that what used to be a daily service now requires an appointment.
A midwife has come from the Health Department’s Maternal and Child Health Service on St. Thomas for the last couple of Fridays. However, the nurse said that until the registered nurses took sick, this service was provided daily.
In October 2009, the nurses and other staff called in sick, allegedly because of problems with the clinic administrator. The issue got another airing at a January 2010 at a Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee meeting on St. John. Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve, who chairs that committee, could not be reached for further comment.
Now, St. John and other residents are signing an online petition to the Health Department asking that it enforce workplace violence rules. As of late Friday, 130 people had signed.
One of the signers is Jane Washburn, who worked at Morris deCastro until the situation with the clinic administrator became too difficult.
She wrote in the petition “as the former public health nurse, I was subjected to intimidation, racial slurs, age discrimination, and unlawful imprisonment by the project administrator. I filed a grievance in which I presented one year’s worth of documentation. This man needs to be be fired for violating numerous Virgin Islands and federal laws. He directs this against the nurses who are the sole clinicians for the public. I felt that for my physical and emotional welfare, that I had to resign and return to the U.S. to live and work. Please stop this man and let the nurses get back to the business of caring for the citizens of St John. Please.”
She later spent more than a half-hour on the phone elaborating about all the reasons she left.
“It was nonstop. Every day it was something else,” she said.
Another nurse alleged that the Morris deCastro administrator “put his hand on her without provocation” during a confrontation in which he pushed her. “The government policy says when he puts his hand on you, he’s supposed to be terminated,” she said.
She said she filed a grievance in February with the Health Department but hasn’t heard “one word” on the matter. She also filed a police report.
According to one employee, the Health Department recently sent letters to the nurses telling them they would be fired if they didn’t return to work.
The list of complaints against the clinic administrator is long and were noted by two current employees and the nurse who was let go. Others could not be reached for comment. In addition to numerous shouting matches with employees, they said he is often away from the job during working hours, uses the clinic vehicles for personal use and instructs another employee to park the clinic vehicles so nurses can’t access the limited parking.
One employee, not a nurse and not on sick leave, said it seems like the clinic administrator has an issue with women who stand up for their rights.
This employee said that Thursday the clinic administrator was nowhere to be seen when people came for health card services. The clinic’s lone practical nurse had gone home sick so no one was available to read test results. The employee said no one gave anyone instructions on what to tell people since those services were not available.
“We’re making the decisions,” the employee said.
The clinic administrator was not at Morris deCastro Friday afternoon, and a message left on his voice mail was not returned.
In addition to direct issues with the clinic administrator, one employee said Morris deCastro hasn’t had a dentist for months and the person who runs the HIV program comes over from St. Thomas only sporadically instead of weekly as planned. One of the nurses said she can’t get much-needed supplies.
The clinic administrator, who lives on St. John, was sent to work on St. Thomas during the winter after several years of complaints against him. He returned at the end of August, which is when the nurses went on sick leave. Smith said Health Department officials told her that he won a union grievance that prevents the department from moving him to another island for work.