OPINION: ThedaCare Case Sets Dangerous Precedent Amidst Mass Resignation

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A few weeks ago, an unprecedented court case caught the eye of many people across the country. It left many people, including nurses and others working in the healthcare field, outraged for good reason. In Wisconsin, a judge issued a temporary injunction to prevent seven healthcare workers from quitting their jobs at the ThedaCare healthcare system in order to work for ThedaCare’s competitor, the national hospital system Ascension, for better pay and better benefits. At first, it seemed like 2020 and its bizarre headlines have come back to haunt everyone. If it was not for the temporary injunction and the audacity surrounding it all, ThedaCare would be another victim of its own hubris in the Great Resignation. So here’s what happened and tips on how to avoid another situation like it.

It all started with the pandemic, where healthcare workers all over the country were facing increasingly demanding work and increasing stress levels in order to keep up with COVID-19 cases, and the healthcare workers of ThedaCare’s interventional radiology and cardiovascular team were no different. ThedaCare Regional Medical Center – Neenah was the only Level II trauma center in its area, meaning that that team provided the care, which was mainly through the treatment of trauma patients and stroke patients, that allowed ThedaCare Regional Medical Center – Neenah to be designated as a Level II trauma center. Then, one day, a member of that team saw that a nearby hospital run by Ascension, one of the main competitors of ThedaCare, offered better wages to its workers along with better benefits, and so they applied to the job openings at Ascension. They also told their colleagues about how the job opening they found paid better wages, and so a total of seven people ended up applying for and getting new jobs with Ascension. If the script of the Great Resignation was followed by ThedaCare, this would be the point where ThedaCare’s management would have matched Ascension’s offer or tried to one-up Ascension’s job offers. But if they had done that, this story would not be written.

The seven former ThedaCare employees were offered jobs in December, which they accepted after ThedaCare never even tried to match Ascension’s offers, and so the workers informed ThedaCare management that their last day would be on Jan. 14. That day came and went, and the first day of work at Ascension for those seven healthcare workers was approaching. ThedaCare’s management must have realized that they were in trouble and instead of finally matching Ascension’s offers of better wages and benefits, they chose to pay attorneys to argue that Ascension had poached their interventional radiology and cardiovascular team and that the lack of staff would put the public at risk. To summarize the legal proceedings, ThedaCare argued that the injunction was necessary in order to keep the hospital able to treat patients as a Level II trauma center and therefore keep the public safe, but at the same time ThedaCare accused Ascension of reaching out to their interventional radiology and cardiovascular team and poaching them, which is a complex legal issue, and has been allowed to move forward even though the temporary injunction has been dismissed. The injunction was dismissed and the temporary injunction was lifted since Judge Mark McGinnis found that ThedaCare could staff its hospital in other ways, such as cross-training employees with similar jobs. The ridiculous part of this story may be over, but there are a lot of questions that remain about how the truly nonsensical case was even able to happen, and whether it can happen to any worker.

The answer to that last question is a complex one. Companies and other similar organizations prevent poaching by making employees sign non-compete agreements, which prevents them from working for competitors. The good thing about Washington State is that it does regulate non-compete agreements. Those regulations cover many different situations, such as preventing employers from preventing their employees from having multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The law also prevents non-compete agreements from being made that force the employee into agreeing to the terms when the employee has not accepted their job offer by that employer or without receiving something in return for signing a non-compete agreement. 

Overall, the regulations in this state are strong, and it seems that a precedent has just been set when it comes to preventing employees from starting a better-paying job than their last. After all, it is a free market (theoretically). But at the same time, it is worth remembering that the legal route should be the last option, and there is a better way of negotiating benefits and wages, and that is joining a union regardless of what job you work. Unions offer better benefits, wages and a spot at the negotiating table so that someone does not find themselves in a bizarre legal battle that seems like it belongs in 2020’s collection of strange headlines.