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Unionized nurses’ refusal to work overtime after their employer announced coming layoffs wasn’t shown to cause irreparable harm to the employer hospital or its patients, a federal district court in Rhode Island held.
In light of the hospital’s failure to demonstrate irreparable harm, the court denied its request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) requiring the nurses to accept overtime assignments during arbitration of the dispute over layoffs.
Shortly after Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island announced its layoff plans, the New England Healthcare Employees Union, which represented the nurses and other hospital employees, told the hospital that nurses would decline overtime assignments and it would conduct informational picketing. Both Rhode Island law and the parties’ collective bargaining agreement prohibit mandated overtime except in cases of emergency.
The court stated that, for the hospital to prevail on its request for a TRO, it would have to demonstrate that the collective bargaining agreement contained mandatory arbitration procedures, the work stoppage to be averted was related to an arbitrable grievance, and ordinary principles of equity justify the injunctive relief.
Although the hospital succeeded in establishing the first two conditions, the court found, it failed to show the nurses’ refusal to accept overtime assignments would cause irreparable harm to the hospital. The court found the hospital’s argument that diverting patients would irreparably harm it – by causing reputational harm, harm to patients, and lost revenues – to be unpersuasive.
There was no evidence that past diversion of patients had caused either reputational harm or any health risk or harm to the patients, the court said. In addition, the amount of lost revenue the hospital might suffer couldn’t be gauged because the hospital didn’t provide the court with numbers on the average reimbursements received in the units likely to be affected by the diversion of patients.
Finally, the court noted that the hospital’s claims regarding patient diversion were speculative because alternatives to assigning overtime shifts were available, including using per diem and temporary nurses.
New England Healthcare Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU v. Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, D. R.I., C.A. No. 15-55 S (Mar. 27, 2015).
Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
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