A federal judge ruled Friday that Women and Infants Hospital cannot prevent workers from refusing overtime after the union representing 1,700 of them requested they protest layoffs by turning down extra shifts.
Chief Judge William E. Smith said in a memorandum that the Providence hospital did not show that employees' refusal to work overtime would cause "irreparable harm."
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Hospital officials said in a statement to The Associated Press they're disappointed with the ruling and are asking staff to continue to pick up extra shifts as needed.
The hospital had tried to argue that refusing overtime was equivalent to striking, which is prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement. But the judge agreed with SEIU 199 Executive Vice President Patrick Quinn, who said refusing overtime was a "lawful protest."
"It's not a strike," Quinn said. "Everybody's just going to work the regular hours they're going to work."
The hospital announced in February its plans to lay off 41 employees, prompting the union to file a lawsuit for what it says is a violation of the hospital's contract with union members. Meanwhile, Quinn issued the notice of the union's intent to refuse overtime March 5.
"Members who are leaders of the union met and said this is one tool in our toolbox to fight these layoffs," Quinn said.
The hospital filed a legal request March 10 seeking to block the notice, saying employees' refusal to work extra shifts would cause "irreparable harm" to the hospital and its patients.
Between 8 and 10 percent of the hospital's non-peak and non-holiday shifts each month are filled by employees working voluntary overtime, said Angelleen Peters-Lewis, chief nurse and senior vice president for patient care, after Monday's hearing.
But Quinn has said reliance on voluntary overtime is an argument against the layoffs.
"It's time for them to figure out another plan," Quinn said. "If they want to save money, cut executive salaries."
Peters-Lewis said Monday that the layoffs — which the hospital has reduced to 17 union employees — would go into effect on or about March 30.
An arbitration hearing for the layoffs is scheduled for April 2.