In late November, Cliff Willmeng’s wife handed him a sealed envelope at their Minneapolis home “with some trepidation,” he recalled. He looked at the sender printed on the front: “Minnesota Board of Nursing.” Willmeng, a registered nurse, opened the letter and read that the board was investigating his conduct as a nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul, from which he’d been fired in May. Clearly his license was at stake.
Willmeng was disappointed, but not surprised. He believes the review is due to his standing up for his own safety and that of other nurses, and for filing a lawsuit and union grievance against United’s parent company, Allina Health, after his termination.
He also thinks the investigation, like his firing, has been orchestrated to scare other healthcare workers away from reporting safety violations and concerns as the pandemic rages, and to make an example out of the former union steward.
The investigation is being led by a former Allina executive: “It feels meant to intimidate me,” he said.
Taking a Stand for Safety
Willmeng is a 13-year nursing veteran, husband, and father, who began working at United in October 2019.
When the pandemic hit late last winter, managers instructed nurses to use and reuse their own scrubs rather than hospital-issued scrubs. They were asked to launder their scrubs themselves at home.
Willmeng and others worried about bringing the virus home and pressed for the hospital scrubs. These scrubs were available, he said, and healthcare workers were permitted to wear hospital gear at Abbott Northwestern, another Allina hospital in Minneapolis.
In addition, while United managers told staff their laundering co-op could not keep up with demand for all the scrubs, the co-op denied that assertion, said Brittany Livaccari, RN, an ER nurse and union steward at United.
Willmeng addressed his concerns with management, filed state OSHA complaints, and enlisted the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA). “He was taking action 100% to protect himself and to protect his patients,” Livaccari said.
But management did not change its policy, which was devised before the pandemic, and pointed to early-pandemic CDC and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines — even when Willmeng shared emerging reports suggesting the policy was jeopardizing safety.
“It did feel like a pissing match,” Livaccari said. “We didn’t feel like we were being protected. … We weren’t being valued.”
Managers repeatedly wrote up Willmeng and colleagues who wore the hospital scrubs despite 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.”
Willmeng continued to wear the hospital scrubs. “I had to decide whether that policy was most important, or the safety of my workplace and public health and my family,” he said.
On May 8, the hospital terminated Willmeng. He said its stated cause was violating hospital policies regarding uniform code and a respectful workplace.
Two weeks later, the local nurses’ union held a rally that drew hundreds of supporters for Willmeng and blasted the hospital’s scrub policy.
‘I’m Not a Bad Nurse’
In June, Willmeng sued Allina for whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination. The case is scheduled to be heard next August.
His union grievance is set to be arbitrated in January. He maintains his firing was not for “just cause” because United’s uniform code policy violated standard nursing practices.
Willmeng has been running the website WeDoTheWork, which describes itself as “worker-run journalism.” It’s an independent but union-affiliated publication that “unflinchingly tells our side of the story, and takes the fight to management.”
Willmeng is applying for jobs, but despite his experience, a national nursing shortage, and reports of severe understaffing as hospitalizations surge again, Willmeng has not even been interviewed by any of the roughly 20 medical centers he has applied to.
He thinks he is being blackballed. “I’m not a bad nurse,” he said.
The board letter cited these concerns: “On April 16, 2020, you received a written warning for not following the uniform policy,” reads one item, citing a report shared with the board. “On May 5, 2020, you were issued a final written warning for repeatedly violating policy. … 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 asks Willmeng to respond to eight questions.
“This looks like it was taken right out of my HR file,” he said. The board will not reveal who reported him, citing confidentiality policies. But he is certain — given the detail in the letter — that it was Allina/United management.
The nursing board cannot comment on Willmeng’s review to protect confidentiality, said executive director Shirley Brekken, MS, RN. The board receives about 1,200 complaints annually and first determines whether a complaint would merit disciplinary action if true. If so, it launches a review.
Allina declined to answer questions via a spokesperson, citing the lawsuit. “We cannot appropriately retain employees who willfully and repeatedly choose to violate hospital policies,” according to an emailed statement. Throughout the pandemic Allina has been following CDC and MDH guidelines, “which do not consider hospital issued scrubs as PPE [personal protective equipment].”
“In the early days of the pandemic, our local and national supply chain was extremely stressed,” the statement continues. “Our practices are aligned with other local and national hospitals … and have enabled us to allocate the appropriate supplies for daily patient care and ongoing care for COVID-19 patients.”
But United healthcare workers still lack hospital scrubs and enough N95 masks, Livaccari said, and the hospital is severely understaffed as the patient load increases. “We hear, ‘It’s a pandemic. You have to do more with less,'” she said. “It’s a really bad situation.”
Retaliation and Intimidation
Some think Willmeng’s review was initiated primarily to retaliate against him, not to protect public health and safety.
“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 workplace 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.”
“If you’re a whistleblower and you speak truth to power, that will get you a disciplinary hearing even more so than if there is patient harm.”
The letter was drafted more than six months after Willmeng was fired, and after he filed the lawsuit and union grievance. Just before he received the letter, he was elected to the MNA board. The timing strikes Willmeng and Kauchick as significant.
“If you think there’s been a violation, you are supposed to report that in a much shorter time period,” Kauchick said. Kauchick thinks Allina filed the complaint as leverage, to persuade Willmeng to drop the grievance and lawsuit.
But Livaccari noted the process can take up to six months, and that every firing is supposed to be reported to the board.
Like Kauchick, she takes umbrage with the review’s leader: Stephanie Cook, MSN, RN, a board nursing practice specialist who spent 24 years as a director with Allina. She was a member of multiple Allina committees, including its ethics committee, according to reports. She was with Allina as recently as 2018. Brekken confirmed her employment with Allina, noting that it’s “a very large system.”
Regardless, that’s a conflict of interest, Kauchick and Livaccari said, arguing that Cook should not be part of the review. “It’s just so blatantly obvious. How are you going to look at this with an unbiased lens when you worked for the organization that says Cliff was in the wrong?” Livaccari said. “It’s so inappropriate.”
This is not uncommon, Kauchick said, noting state nursing board reviews are “really just designed to get rid of whistleblowers. It’s like a buddy system. They hire higher-ups from big hospital systems. It’s just incestuous.”
Brekken was aware of Cook’s background before a colleague assigned this review to Cook, she said, noting the board vets staff for personal involvement in cases. Brekken “might consider” removing Cook from the review given her connection to Allina, she said, but added: “Many individuals on our staff may have worked for a particular health system throughout their career.”
The board could throw out the complaint or take action. Such actions typically range from a reprimand to revoking a nurse’s license, Brekken said. A staff member and board member together will review the report and Willmeng’s response, but she said the board itself makes final decisions.
Willmeng is also focused on the grievance, which asks Allina to provide full back pay and reinstate him.
“I would not feel comfortable; I’d feel very anxious” going back, he said. “But I’m an ER nurse. I belong in the ER…. It’s important for a frontline healthcare worker to demonstrate that when they stand up and speak truthfully and assertively about working conditions and patient safety, that they can’t just be triangulated.”
His salary — about twice his current unemployment benefits — is also a draw, he acknowledged.
Meanwhile, he continues applying for other jobs. His life insurance cost doubled and his family switched to his wife’s lesser health insurance plan, he said. A fourth-grade teacher with a local public school system, her salary is the primary support for themselves and their two children.
Willmeng also just hired an attorney at $250 an hour to help him respond to the board letter. “It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. “There’s cause for real concern. That’s my nursing license, that’s everything.“