ThedaCare lawsuit shows how Covid-19 disrupted the nursing labor market

The staffing crisis in health care reached a farcical extreme last week when ThedaCare, a health system in Wisconsinfiled for a temporary restraining order to block a number of its employees from leaving their jobs and moving to another nearby hospital.

The hospital argued that, because the pandemic had created a shortage of health care workers, it needed the court to block the employees from leaving at least until it was able to come up with a staffing plan.

As medical workers burn out, isolate due to Covid-19, and leave for other professions, the ensuing staffing shortage has gotten so severe that ThedaCare turned to the courts to try to fix it. It was a striking example of how the pandemic has turned the health care labor market upside down, putting nurses and doctors in higher demand than ever even as they must face the most grueling working conditions of their careers.

The workers and the hospital that hired them, Ascension Northeast Wisconsin, countered that ThedaCare could have matched the offers made by Ascension, but didn’t. By declining to match and then failing to come up with a plan before the workers were to set to leave, they argued ThedaCare was attempting to punish the workers for its own shortsightedness.

It appeared for a moment that ThedaCare’s gambit might work: A local judge granted the temporary injunction. But the judge changed course a few days and lifted the order, allowing the workers — members of an interventional radiology and cardiovascular team — to start work at their new employer.

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