The Public Eye

The Public Eye: State orders Rocklin Unified to rehire four nurses

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Rocklin Unified School District must rehire four nurses it laid off in 2010 and pay them four years of back wages with interest, the California Public Employment Relations Board ruled last week.

Board members upheld a judge’s 2012 decision that determined nurses Jennifer Hammond, Genevieve Sherman, Susan Firchau and Jennifer Bradley had been wrongfully fired in retaliation for expressing concerns about staffing, workload and safety, which is protected by the Education Employment Relations Act. The four women were the district’s entire nursing staff.

“We have received the PERB ruling, are reviewing it and discussing it with the board,” said Roger Stock, superintendent of the 11,000-student district. The agenda for Tuesday night’s board meeting includes a discussion of the decision with legal counsel in closed session.

The district can decide to accept the ruling or reject it and file a petition with the 3rd District Court of Appeal, according to the PERB website.

“I believe the district will do what’s ordered and offer to reinstate their jobs,” said Barbara Scott, president of the Rocklin Teachers Professional Association, which filed the complaint against the district.

Hammond said all four nurses are planning to return to their jobs at the district. “I want to go back because I have a vested interest in this,” Hammond said. “I live in the community, and I’m happy to go back.”

The complaint paints a picture of a tumultuous relationship between the nurses and administrators. Problems started in 2008 when the nurses asked for office space and enlisted the union to help them. The schism grew after Hammond, the lead nurse, refused a district official’s request to teach a bus driver to suction a student’s trachea tube, saying it was unsafe.

The district and its nurses were at loggerheads over training scheduled for days that the nurses – who did not all work full-time – were not working or when they had other work-related obligations, the complaint said. District officials told them to rearrange their work days. The nurses refused and were told “to be careful” and “to watch out,” according to the complaint.

The “beginning of the end” came when the nurses refused to train students from the Regional Occupation Program to perform emergency medical procedures, Hammond said. Only doctors are authorized to supervise and train medical assistants, she said.

“We were being asked to do things that were really unsafe and outside our scope of practice,” Hammond said in an interview. “We did offer some alternate suggestions. But (district officials) absolutely made our lives miserable and then laid us off.”

On Friday, Stock said the district is constantly reviewing its medical and health safety practices to ensure they comply with appropriate regulations. “Sometimes it’s a matter of a difference of opinion that we are fully compliant.”

Bradley’s performance evaluation reflected the tense relationship between district officials and the nurses. In the review, Director of Special Education Betty Di Regolo wrote that communication between the district and the nurses had been challenging during the 2008-09 school year. She warned Bradley that it was going to get worse, according to the complaint.

The situation deteriorated to the point that a meeting between Hammond and an administrator “ended with him literally screaming in my face,” she recounted Friday. Hammond asked for union representation and left the meeting. She received a letter of reprimand.

The nurses received preliminary pink slips in March 2010 along with staff in 78 full-time positions. Union concessions allowed the district to retain 71 full-time jobs. The four nurses’ jobs were not saved. District officials said the layoffs were financial and that the timing had nothing to do with the nurses’ engagement in protected activity. The union complained that the district was retaliating against the women.

The two sides met in a settlement hearing that ended with no resolution before the case moved on to a formal hearing in 2012. A judge agreed with the union and the nurses. But the judge rejected a union claim that the district had transferred the nurses’ work to an outside unit without giving the union a chance to bargain.

Rocklin Unified paid about $37,000 in attorney’s fees out of its unrestricted general fund, Stock said.

“The union was delighted to be vindicated by PERB, and it’s a long time coming,” said CTA attorney Laura Juran. “Again, we think it’s unfortunate instead of making things right they continued to incur legal fees.”

The case is likely to cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, because it includes salary raises and interest, Juran said.

Hammond, who said she’s working at another school district, isn’t expecting a big payout. While PERB’s decision awards lost wages, that amount is reduced if the nurses earned income in other jobs. It remains unclear how much the district has to pay.

“It’s not five years’ pay,” she said Friday. “There were probably two months I didn’t receive a paycheck.”

She said most of the other nurses found jobs as well. Only one couldn’t find a job close enough to home. “It was never about the money,” Hammond said. “It was always about the safety of the kids.”

The district now is being served by a health team that includes a registered nurse, licensed vocational nurses and health aides, Stock said. The women who were laid off are all registered nurses, said Scott, the Rocklin teachers’ union leader.

Hammond is “very concerned” about how she will be received when she returns to Rocklin Unified but said she will approach the situation professionally.

Stock, who has been superintendent since the beginning of last school year, said the district has a strong working relationship with all its employees. “We always want to make sure all employees are treated professionally,” he said.

Scott is hopeful that the old wounds can be healed. “I think with new leadership there is always a time for rebirth and to grow again and to make new relationships. I think we have kind of been working on that.”