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ThedaCare loses court fight to keep health care staff who resigned

Employees who were subject of lawsuit will start new job at Ascension Tuesday

ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Appleton
ThedaCare Regional Medical Center is located in Appleton, Wis. Photo courtesy of ThedaCare

A hospital in northeastern Wisconsin has lost a court battle to keep health care staff who want to work elsewhere.

On Monday, Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinnis held a hearing on a case that involves staff who were part of ThedaCare’s radiology and cardiovascular team, deciding the employer can’t force workers who had resigned to stay until replacements were hired.

The civil court case between ThedaCare and Ascension Wisconsin comes at a time when health professionals are in great demand across the U.S.

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Attorneys for Ascension argued in court Monday that ThedaCare had known for weeks the employees were resigning and should have prepared for that instead of responding with a “frantic, last-minute lawsuit.”

Just days before, seven former employees of ThedaCare were to start new jobs at Ascension’s St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. Judge McGinnis had temporarily blocked the move until a court hearing could be held and ThedaCare could find replacement staff at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Neenah.

In arguing for the temporary injunction, lawyers for ThedaCare said the facility “will not have adequate staffing to treat trauma and stroke victims — some of whom will die as a result of the lack of timely care.”

Workforce shortages have stressed health care systems around the state during the pandemic, which have actively recruited workers with bonuses and other enticements. In addition, many are relying on temporary staffing agencies to fill gaps.

Ascension said in a statement they did not initiate the ThedaCare employees, but rather the seven people had applied to open job postings.

“It is Ascension Wisconsin’s understanding that ThedaCare had an opportunity but declined to make competitive counter offers to retain its former employees,” a spokesperson for Ascension wrote in an email.

A former ThedaCare employee, Timothy Breister, told the court that “one member of our team received an outstanding offer not just in pay but also a better work/life balance which in turn caused the rest of us to apply” and that no matching offers were made. The seven resigned from their positions shortly thereafter on Dec. 29, Breister said.

The employees in question were all at-will. That means an employee is free to leave a job, just as an employer is able to terminate an employee for any reason as long as it’s legal.

ThedaCare officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the case Monday, which was first reported by the Appleton Post-Crescent. It said the broader case, in which ThedaCare argues that Ascension inappropriately group-recruited these employees, will go forward in court.

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