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ThedaCare Medics Row Shows Worker Clout

— February 7, 2022

Seven ThedaCare medics quit for better jobs. At first, a judge said they couldn’t go, a stunning decision in an economy which should be golden for workers.

Have you heard the bonkers story coming out of Wisconsin, which takes “at-will employment” to a completely new level? It all started last December when seven tired ThedaCare medics in the Fox Valley region of Wisconsin decided to find better jobs.

The COVID years have been absolutely grueling for health care workers, with nearly 20% turnover since the beginning of the pandemic. No doubt the ThedaCare medics, part of an small interventional radiology and cardiovascular team at a trauma center, were feeling the burn. When one of the team members received a job offer from Ascension Northeast Wisconsin that not only provided better pay and benefits but greater work-life balance, they jumped – and told their colleagues about it. By early January, four radiology technicians and three nurses had applied for posted job openings at Ascension and received offers of their own.

When their employer refused to match Ascension’s offers, the ThedaCare medics quit. All of them were employed “at-will,” meaning they had no contractual obligation to stay, and ThedaCare could dismiss them at any time. That’s when things got weird. ThedaCare took the seven to court, claiming that with the current pandemic showing no sign of abating, y’all picked a fine time to leave us, Lucille.

Since when does “at-will,” employment, usually a way for companies to abandon workers whenever it’s convenient for them (without the protection of a formal contract), mean that “you can’t go until we say so?” That’s what Outagamie County judge Mark McGinnis had to decide last month when ThedaCare asserted that losing their seven staff members would endanger Green Bay and Milwaukee residents needing injury and stroke treatment.

A medical worker looking exhausted, sitting at rest.
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.

At first, Judge McGinnis granted the request for a temporary injunction preventing the no-longer ThedaCare medics from starting their new jobs at Ascension, with the result that they wouldn’t be punching in at either ThedaCare or Ascension for a while, which helps nobody. However, within a few days, the judge lifted the order and the medics were able to start their new, hopefully less awful jobs.

There are some staggering implications here.

Right at surface level is the crazy idea that an employer could prevent their workers from quitting to take on more preferable employment without agreeing to bump their compensation up to a level that makes staying look worthwhile. That is a huge chunk of the whole “free market” justification that economic conservatives give for rejecting union membership in the first place, the ability as a free agent to pick up your labor power and take it where you’ll get the best pay and benefits available, and competition between prospective employers was going to lift wages for all, especially the best.

That’s not how it’s turning out, is it? Instead, there’s an expectation that we’ll feel “passion” for increasingly awful working environments, abusive customers, companies that treat employees as short-term assets to use up and throw away, burnout and suicide, and conditions of hire that (allegedly) compel employees to voluntarily waive their right to meal and rest breaks, all with the extra added bonus of maybe catching a disabling or fatal virus that’s going around. And that’s with high market demand for healthcare and food service workers.

We’re in a state of economic chaos, and chaos, however unsettling, comes with possibilities. In the mid-1300s, Europe’s agrarian economy was brought to its knees by the second massive outbreak of bubonic plague, which killed up to half the population in some places. It must have been awful to live through, but when it was over, the workers that survived found their fortunes much improved. A smaller labor pool meant higher wages and better working conditions, even as the elites of the time complained about the social order falling apart and how peasant laborers had forgotten their place. Sound familiar?

While the 900,000+ Americans dead of COVID don’t begin to approach the per capita numbers felled by the plague, it’s clear that they, along with the disabled victims of Long COVID, retiring Boomers, (mostly) women who dropped out of the workforce to care for children, and falling numbers of immigrants, have left the labor force shrunken to such a degree that the remaining workers, like the ThedaCare medics, ought to be able to wrest significant concessions from potential employers. If there was ever a time in recent history to organize and capitalize on the power of labor, this is it.

Related: Nobody Wants to Work Anymore


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