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Nurse’s critical comments at union conference about workplace violence in hospitals were not just cause for dismissal

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A mental health nurse whose critical comments, in a closed-door union meeting, about workplace violence in hospitals were later published online by a local newspaper and in a union press release without her knowledge or permission, has been reinstated by an arbitrator with back pay.

The comments in the union press release that were attributed to the nurse included:

“Staff at hospitals with forensic psychiatric units or those with medium security units where patients come direct from area prisons are “easy targets for violence” on understaffed wards. Many of these patients are strong and aggressive young offenders and nurses are told that “the violence is part of the work we do. Nurses are often blamed directly by the employer for the assaults that are directed at them. Or supervisors tell nurses ‘thanks for taking one for the team’. Often nurses face reprisals for reporting incidents of violence and when we demand increased security matters,’ says Sue McIntyre a North Bay psychiatric RPN.”

When her comments were published online by the local paper, the nurse intervened and had the comments taken down within three hours of being posted. The employer concluded that the comments were about the hospital and its staff and patients, not general comments about hospitals, and that the comments were false and had harmed the hospital’s reputation.  It dismissed her, claiming just cause.

The union grieved the dismissal. The arbitrator decided that dismissal was excessive.  A one-week suspension was more appropriate. The comments were made at a legitimate closed-door trade union meeting about workplace safety.  Workplace violence was an important issue in the hospital sector.  Media were not present or invited.  The nurse did not intend the comments to be public.  She was given very little time to think about and prepare her comments.  The union press release and newspaper article were published without her knowledge or consent.  She took prompt steps to have any comments attributed to her removed from those documents.

The arbitrator decided, however, that it was not entirely unforeseeable that the comments would become public, so she must bear some responsibility for the words that she spoke.  Also, the comments were not truthful to the extent that they were comments about the hospital at which she worked.  She had previous discipline on her record.  In the circumstances, a one-week suspension was appropriate, and the employer was ordered to reinstate the nurse with back-pay.

North Bay Regional Health Centre v Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 139, 2018 CanLII 6645 (ON LA)