While one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory leaves many people in northeast Ohio with the sniffles and a cough, local nurses say they're overcoming an additional obstacle: strict attendance policies that sometimes make them either work while they're sick or be fired.
"You end up feeling like I better not call off no matter what," said nurse Wendy Kester. Her first job in nursing was in the late 1990s at University Hospital in Cleveland, before working as a nurse in Colorado and North Carolina.
In the last few weeks, we've talked to nurses with more than 50 years of nursing experience among them, and they all agree attendance policies for nurses are broken.
"You were disciplined accordingly until you were disciplined out the door," said one former Cleveland area hospital nurse who was terminated after calling out one too many times while battling lower back pain. She had already used up extra time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act when she said she had to call off again. She says the nursing culture and hospital policies often force nurses to come to work no matter what or potentially be fired.
"Nurses are often commended for coming into work sick so they don't put their comrades at a disservice for being understaffed," she said. "That's kind of sick."
Local hospitals say it comes down to the level of care they need to provide.
Cleveland Clinic said in a statement:
"Poor attendance can have a negative impact on our operations, and more importantly, patient care," and that "all factors are taken into consideration" when an employee is absent too much.
University Hospitals said:
"[Nurses'] attendance is important to our patients and their colleagues, because unexpected absences can affect the level of care we provide. A record of unreliable attendance is unacceptable."
Many of the nurses we spoke with said they needed to hide their faces and names because they're afraid they'll never get hired again if they speak out.
"It's a whole different ballgame all of a sudden if you are the one that needs the care," said Kester.
With new nurses graduating every year, they say supply and demand often isn't too much of a problem.
"The hospitals don't have to fix it because there are plenty of people to take your position if you get fired," said one former hospital nurse.