Health-care worker fired for dirty joke

Breach of employer policy and public trust,along with disciplinary history provided just cause for dismissal

Health-care worker fired for dirty joke
Personal care worker tried to get a resident to participate in a dirty joke Credit: logoboom/Shutterstock

The dismissal of a Newfoundland and Labrador health-care worker for trying to get a long-term care resident to participate in a dirty joke has been upheld by an arbitrator.

The worker was employed as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and personal care attendant (PCA) at the Carbonear Long Term Care Centre operated by Eastern Health, the largest integrated health organization in Newfoundland and Labrador. She joined Eastern Health in 2009 as a permanent part-time employee and was licensed by the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Eastern Health’s collective agreement with its union specified that “adverse reports” — written records of dissatisfaction with someone’s work performance — could not be used against an employee after 18 months without another instance of warning or reprimand elapsed.

In June 2017, the worker was cited for not following proper procedure and an report was placed in her file. Three months later she was suspended for four months for multiple incidents including inappropriate comments to people visiting residents, recording wrong information about a patient, delaying resident treatment, using social media to post information and threats towards co-workers, and talking about residents openly in public. In addition to her suspension, Eastern Health reported the incidents to the College of Licensed Practical Nurses.

The worker said the comments were intended as jokes and in one case she knew the family members. She also said in the investigation that “just because they were offended by her comments does not mean that they were right in their conclusion.”

The union reached a settlement with Eastern Health that reduced the suspension to three months and required the worker to review several documents on professional practice consultant nursing. The worker returned to work near the end of 2017 under conditions that she be assigned day shifts to ensure close monitoring and co-signed for two shifts with a senior licensed practical nurse and an observation assessment by a clinical education before returning to independent work.

Vulgar joke with resident and colleague

Not long after the worker returned to work, on Jan. 9, 2018, was providing care for a resident (referred to as R) who had a cognitive disability due to an illness and stroke. R was known to use curse words frequently, particularly when she was upset, and could be both verbally and physically aggressive. The worker called another PCA into R’s room to help wash her and, according to the other PCA, leaned over to R and said to ask her “if she likes sucking clean c---.” R didn’t say anything and looked shocked, but the worker then said “no, she’s a dirty c--------r.” The worker told the other PCA that the comment was a joke she had heard at a party, but the other PCA said it was in poor taste and inappropriate.

Later, R called the other PCA into her room and said “I would never say that.” The other PCA reported the incident to the resident care manager and, one week later, also told the HR consultant about it in a meeting. She also noted she didn’t feel the comment was made in a mean way, realized it was a joke and it didn’t offend her, but it was inappropriate and caused her “a lot of stress.”

Eastern Health investigated, including an interview with the other PCA who was upset and emotional, but said she was “100 per cent certain” about her statement.

The worker denied that she had told the resident to call her colleague profane names and said she had only repeated profanities R had said to them when they were trying to wash her, telling R she “can’t be calling her that stuff.” The worker also said the other PCA had used a movement to lift R into her wheelchair that wasn’t allowed and later that day didn’t see anyone on the floor who was upset. The manager and HR consultant noted the worker didn’t seem surprised at the interview and didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing.

At the investigation interview, management didn’t tell the worker who had reported the incident, but told her another staff member had poked her head around the curtain in R’s room and the worker got the resident to call her “c--------r.”

Eastern Health determined that the worker’s comments were unethical, violated its resident-centred approach to care, and caused the organization to lose respect from R’s family. Since the incident happened only three weeks after the worker returned to work from her suspension for similar behaviour, management felt it would further hurt Eastern Health’s reputation if the worker was allowed to continue her employment. On Jan. 17, 2018, the worker’s employment was terminated. Eastern Health also notified the nurses’ college about the worker’s misconduct. The union grieved the termination on the worker’s behalf, arguing dismissal was excessive since the worker had nine years of service, and the termination was based on an accusation by a colleague who had said she realized the worker was joking.

The worker reached a settlement with the nurses’ college in June 2018 in which the worker’s LPN licence was suspended for two months and she was required to complete certain courses before being reinstated.

Colleague’s version credible

The arbitrator found that the colleague’s description of the Jan. 9, 2018, incident was “more probable” than the worker’s version. The colleague’s account of events was consistent with other witnesses, the resident R, and her reaction at the time. In addition, the colleague had no reason to falsify matters — there was no evidence of poor relations between her and the worker and she wasn’t affected by the outcome of the matter. The worker’s description of events relied on the prior use of vulgar language by R — not proof on its own — and was mostly contradictory to that of her colleague, R, and other witnesses, said the arbitrator in finding the incident happened as the colleague reported and Eastern Health stated in the letter of termination.

The arbitrator noted that Eastern Health had a policy of resident-centred care and health-care employees in a residential care setting had a high bar of trust and tolerance. Long-term care residences often have residents who can exhibit behaviour “that would tax the patience and self-control of the most considerate caregiver,” but those residents are usually vulnerable. If employees can’t show high levels of self-control and proper conduct, it can be just cause for dismissal.

The arbitrator found that while the worker had a good length of service with Eastern Health and may not have intended to harm the resident or her colleague, she seriously breached the organization’s policy. The incident could be considered “a single, brief event” involving only the worker, her colleague, and the resident R, but any involvement of a resident was serious — R was upset by the incident and her family lost trust in Eastern Health when they heard of it. In addition, the worker had a disciplinary history related to similar misconduct and had only been back at work for three weeks following a previous suspension. Similar misconduct in a short period of time was an aggravating factor, said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator dismissed the grievance and upheld the worker’s dismissal.

For more information see:

• NAPE and Eastern Health (Noseworthy), Re, 2019 CarswellNfld 198 (N.L. Arb.).

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