Nurses plan march to Capitol to demand more access to PPE

A man wearing scrubs, eye protection and a face mask poses beside a note.
Cliff Willmeng, wearing hospital-issued scrubs, stands beside a note he wrote to his kids. Willmeng says he was fired from his job as a nurse at United Hospital because he violated uniform policy.
Courtesy of Cliff Willmeng

A union representing Minnesota nurses is planning a march in St. Paul to demand more personal protective equipment, after a nurse at United Hospital was fired for violating policy by wearing hospital-issued scrubs.

The Minnesota Nurses Association says its members will march from United Hospital to the State Capitol on May 20 to call for equipment, training and staffing to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nurses at United Hospital have reported they’ve been disciplined for wearing hospital-issued surgical scrubs instead of their own, because they are worried about carrying the virus home and infecting their families and loved ones.

Cliff Willmeng, 50, said he was terminated on Friday for violating hospital policies and expectations, because he wore hospital-issued scrubs and intervened on behalf of other nurses who were disciplined for doing so.

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“Hospital-issued scrubs are an infection prevention measure,” Willmeng said. “That's why they're in the hospital.”

A man wearing a face mask walking past a brick building.
Cliff Willmeng (left) leaves United Hospital on Friday, May 8, 2020. Willmeng says he was fired from his job as a nurse at United Hospital because he violated uniform policy.
Courtesy of Cliff Willmeng

Willmeng, an emergency department nurse and union steward, said the incident is part of a pattern of hospital administrators placing profits over the protection of employees.

In a statement, Allina Health, which owns United, said it's following the latest state and federal guidance on personal protective equipment, and doesn’t consider hospital-issued scrubs to be PPE.

“At a time when all health care systems are managing limited supplies, Allina Health has carefully weighed and adopted policies for the use and distribution of those supplies, such as scrubs for staff,” Allina said in its statement.

Allina said it’s “never easy to part ways with an employee,” but added, “We cannot appropriately retain employees who willfully and repeatedly choose to violate hospital policies designed to protect our patients and staff.”

Hospitals across Minnesota and the country have been adjusting their policies to conform with evolving CDC guidelines on PPE, and to stretch limited supplies to prepare for a potential surge of COVID-19 cases. Nurses have been asked to re-wear masks, for example, while in the past they would have disposed of them after each patient.

Nurses also have expressed concern over Gov. Tim Walz’s decision to allow Minnesota hospitals to restart elective surgeries starting Monday after a temporary ban aimed at preserving scarce PPE for a COVID-19 surge.

The nurses’ union said its members will follow social-distancing rules during the May 20 march, and no nurses will leave their jobs to participate.

State officials this weekend approved the expenditure of $21.55 million from Minnesota's COVID-19 fund "for gowns and/or flexible spending for critical care supplies." It's estimated that would cover the cost of 3 million gowns.