Meet Theresa Puckett
If you do a Google search for "nurse fired for being sick" you will be inundated with articles about Theresa Puckett, PhD, RN, CRCP, CNE, a nurse from Northeast Ohio who found herself terminated after a legitimate bout of the Flu during one of the worst Flu seasons our country has seen.
According to an article in Becker's Hospital Review, Theresa worked as a PRN Nurse at University Hospitals, based in Cleveland. She called in sick one day at the end of December 2017 with flu symptoms. Theresa visited a physician and tested positive for the flu virus. She was treated with Tamiflu and ended up missing two days of work. Her physician provided a note excusing her from work for these days. She returned to work a few days later and was instructed by a supervisor to leave early due to continued illness.
The next day, she saw a Nurse Practitioner who diagnosed her with a sinus infection and provided her with another note stating she should not return to work for a few more days. However, returning to work was never an option for Nurse Puckett because she was terminated.
You may be thinking - How does that happen?
According to the University Hospitals statement to Becker's Hospital Review, they allow six unscheduled absences for full and part-time staff within a 12 month period, and nine absences may result in termination. For "as needed" or PRN staff, two occurrences of unscheduled absences within a 60-day period may result in termination. Because Theresa returned to work for one shift in between her two absences, this counted as two occurrences and qualified her for termination.
Presentism versus Absenteeism
If you have ever gone to work sick, raise your hand. As hands of nurses around the world are raised high, let's discuss the reasons we've all done it. To really understand both sides of the issue, you need to understand the difference between absenteeism and presenteeism.
Absenteeism is the practice of staying home from work or school when you are ill. Of course, there are other reasons people call off, but for this article, we are only exploring this issue concerning illness. So, what's the opposite of absenteeism? Presenteeism - the act of going to work when you are ill.
Nurses have high standards for themselves and the care they provide to patients, even when they are ill. A 2000 study by Aronsson, et al. reported that rates of presenteeism were highest among nurses and teachers. But, we know that presenteeism may result in adverse patient outcomes, poor nurse health, and cost consequences. So, why is it so difficult to take a sick day?
Let's consider a few of the most important factors when deciding which side of the issue you support.
The Team Needs You
Your throat is on fire, your head feels like a giant elephant is jumping on it and crawling back into bed sounds like the best possible plan - but, you know your teammates need you. You don't want to let others down. Staffing on many units is kept to a minimum so even one call off could cause your co-workers to take on larger assignments, be in unsafe situations, or be upset with you for calling off.
A February 2018 article by News 5 Cleveland quoted one nurse as saying "Nurses are often commended for coming into work sick, so they don't put their comrades at a disservice for being understaffed." It seems the issues of teamwork, loyalty, and service is a double-edged sword on nursing units.
Patients Need You
Nurses spend more time with patients than any other healthcare professional. You recognize minor changes in assessments and notify physicians. Yes, the doctors diagnose and order new treatments, but it's the nurses who carry out these orders that are often life-saving treatments.
A 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics explored the reasons physicians and advanced practice nurses work while ill. While 95% of the respondents believed working while sick put patients at risk, 83% reported working at least one time in the prior year while sick, and 9% reported working while ill at least 5 times. Symptoms reported in this study included fever, diarrhea and acute onset of respiratory symptoms. 92.5% of these clinicians cited not wanting to let patients down as one of the reasons they headed to work with these signs of illness.
So, as you lie in bed contemplating calling in - that's what runs through your mind, right? Without you - who will care for your patients? And, what if you are not the only one with this dreaded illness? So, off to work you go.
Sick Time Policies
Are sick time policies created to protect or punish you? This is a hard question to answer. And, it often leaves nurses faced with difficult decisions that end in absenteeism or presenteeism.
Let's explore a few sick time policy practices.
Some call-off policies will withhold pay from nurses if you call off at specific times. This might mean that calling off the day before a holiday will result in forfeiture of holiday pay. Or, if you call off on your last scheduled day before a planned vacation or on your first scheduled day after a planned vacation - you forfeit vacation pay.
In a world where many people live paycheck to paycheck, this policy might result in nurses putting themselves and their patients at risk to keep pay that many would argue is rightfully yours. You can't plan illness, so if you are sick around these specific time points, what are you to do?
Most policies give a number of 'unexcused" absences allowed over a period of time, such as 12 months. Typically after missing this number of days, you will be reprimanded. You may also be given a specific amount of time, such as the remainder of the year or 90 days, in which you must not miss any more work.
Of course, if you end up legitimately ill during this time, you are probably going to go to work or risk disciplinary action.
No Sick Pay
Nurses who work a limited number of hours per week or prn often have no sick time. This leaves you making financial decisions in the face of illness.
Or, your policy may require you to use vacation time before using sick pay. This may seem counterintuitive given the fact that nurse burnout and fatigue runs rampant on many nursing units and days off are necessary.
Some sick policies require a physician's note for any unplanned absences. Others might state that no MD note is necessary because all unscheduled absences are unapproved. Or, you may also find policies that require a doctor's note after a certain number of days, which may be due to the Family Medical Leave Act.
No matter what your policy reads in regards to doctors notes, you need to understand it before you need to use it. Be sure to get notes when they are required to remain compliant with your facilities policies.
Almost all sick policies will lead to termination as an end result. And, when such procedures are executed the same across the board, most nurses find these policies to be acceptable. However, when these policies are not carried out consistently, you may feel that they are being used against you or other staff on your unit to force your hand at finding a new job.
Some of the allnurses team met Theresa at the NursesTakeDC rally earlier this year. Nurse Beth was able to interview Theresa and learn more about her ordeal. Thank you for sharing with us, Theresa.
What are Your Thoughts?
So, where does all of this leave you? Do you stay home when ill or head to work in an attempt to avoid discipline, even when you know it is not best for you or your patients? Now it's time for you to decide.
Tell us your thoughts and experiences with nurse absenteeism, presenteeism, and termination.