Credit: CDC

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At least 37 school nurses will be temporarily laid off for not agreeing to partake in the District’s response efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to the nurses’ union. The District of Columbia Nurses Association (DCNA) is also accusing the nurses’ management at Children’s National Hospital of unfair labor practices.

DCNA tells City Paper that the estimate is not complete as 20 nurses are still weighing whether or not to agree to the new assignment or face layoffs. The prospect of having to apply for unemployment while so many workers are is discouraging. As of March 31, more than 39,800 unemployment claims have been filed.  

“Some people are not willing to make the sacrifice with health insurance,” says Walakewon Blegay, a staff attorney with DCNA. 

On Friday, more than 100 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses that work in D.C. public schools received a work notice that asked them to “help serve the community’s urgent health needs resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.” These nurses are contracted and report to Children’s School Services, a program within Children’s National Hospital. Per the notice, nurses had until Tuesday night to report to their managers about whether they’d agree to emergency response work. If they did not agree to participate in COVID-19 efforts, nurses would be laid off and “subject to recall” when schools reopen. Those that are laid off would have health insurance through COBRA. 

DCNA says nurses are concerned about partaking in any COVID-19 response because many are older and have underlying health conditions. If they are required to help with D.C.’s drive-through testing sites, some nurses risk getting infected and will become severely sick. 

DC Health, the government agency that would be assigning the work, told City Paper on Friday that there would be a process for nurses to seek accommodation if they believe COVID-19 tasks could jeopardize their health. On Wednesday, DC Health and Children’s School Services said school nurses could maintain full employment if they performed one of the following roles: contact tracing by phone, provide case management for individuals under strict quarantine; support COVID-19 call center; work at testing sites.  

“During this unprecedented public health crisis, trained public health and health care professionals are in demand more than ever,” said DC Health and Children’s School Services in a joint statement to City Paper on Wednesday. “The majority of nurses chose to perform this vital work and remain employed. Nurses who did not elect to perform this work will be temporarily laid off effective the close of business on April 3, 2020 and subject to recall when D.C. schools reopen.”

DCNA says the union was given little information about the new assignment and no assurances that school nurses who cannot do screening and testing would be able to do other work during negotiations with Children’s School Services last week, nor were they briefed on specific protection equipment that nurses would be offered if they did screening and testing. DC Health was not on the March 25 conference call where the union and management discussed the work notice.  

On Tuesday, DCNA filed an unfair labor practice charge against Children’s School Services with the National Labor Relations Board. The filing names 34 nurses who will be laid off as a result of the work order. 

“CSS has refused to bargain in good faith on a change of assignment and laid off bargaining unit members in the midst of bargaining to send a message,” reads the filing. 

The filing says DCNA shared a list of nurses with Children’s School Services on March 30 that were going to refuse the change in assignment until management bargained in good faith and provided more information. The next day, CSS allegedly responded to say it was moving forward with the implementation of the work notice despite the union’s attempt to continue bargaining. CSS allegedly laid off the members listed in the email. 

“The managers of CSS also provided false information to members to encourage the members to undermine DCNA’s position,” the filing reads. 

DC Health and Children’s School Services did not respond to the filing.