‘A lot of nurses don’t have a work ethic’: An Atlanta drug rehab clinic is accused of firing its nursing staff during the pandemic

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While nurses around the world are being praised as heroes on the frontlines, healthcare workers at an Atlanta drug rehabilitation clinic allege management fired the entire nursing staff after characterizing them as selfish and lazy.

On April 13, the Atlanta Detox Center terminated at least seven nurses, according to Shialla Warren, the center’s former director of nursing and one of those laid off.

ADC executive director Bryan Stephens characterized the layoffs to employees as a reorganization from a full-time nursing staff to using staffing agencies and nurse practitioners.

But Warren and another nurse allege the team was terminated because they refused to take medical orders from Stephens, who does not have a medical background.

Stephens did not respond to a request for comment. The clinic’s parent company, Amatus Health, said in a statement to Business Insider that it was company policy not to discuss personnel matters.

“We have an open-door policy for employees to discuss their workplace concerns with management and are disappointed that certain individuals have decided to speak to the media rather than have meaningful conversations with our company to address their concerns,” the statement read in part.

‘It’s not like we have a lot of options’

Opened in 2018, the Atlanta Detox Center is a residential substance abuse facility in suburban Riverdale, housing 44 clients in semi-private bedrooms.

The clinic offers individual, group, and family therapy, as well as motivational interviews, art and music therapy, gym facilities, and a movie theater. Out of pocket, a stay at ADC costs $5,000 a week.

Warren said nurses became increasingly resistant when Stephens began to tell them how to take care of the patients.

“The ED tried to tell the nurses when to give medications, when to test patients for COVID, what clients to perform Genesight testing on, and when we could and couldn’t send a client to the emergency room,” she told Business Insider.

“He didn’t have the authority to make any of those types of decisions,” she added, “but he told my nurses because he is the executive director he has that authority. And that isn’t the case.”

Stephens “always wanted nurses, including myself, to take medical orders from him, and we refused,” Warren said. 

Their resistance, she added, “ultimately ended up in our termination.”

“ADC fired us because we were African-American nurses that were not willing to succumb to their unethical practices,” Warren said.

The pandemic exacerbated problems at the clinic

The second-guessing became increasingly problematic when the coronavirus pandemic hit Georgia in March, Warren told Business Insider. ADC was facing a nursing shortage as staff members and their children were falling ill with COVID-19.

“I had several staff members sick. Their kids were sick. I was sick,” she said. “We don’t have a humongous staff, so it’s not like we have a lot of options or people we can call.”

Warren had been covering shifts for other nurses, she said, when she was hospitalized twice herself with COVID-19-like symptoms and sepsis, in late March and again in early April.

She was still working remotely while receiving oxygen, Warren said.

Coronavirus testing in Georgia was scarce during the first few weeks of the pandemic, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Warren was not initially tested. But her doctors suspected she had COVID-19.

By March 27, at least one nurse practitioner had tested positive for the disease, the clinic said in an email seen by Business Insider. Nurses say at least two other ADC staffers were in quarantine with symptoms.

Nurses say the clinic had insufficient coronavirus protections

In another internal email obtained by Business Insider, Stephens said masks were offered, temperature checks were taken on all staff and clients, and outside visitors were prohibited.

Additionally, Amatus Health told Business Insider the treatment center was deep-cleaned and staff were told to stay home if they showed symptoms of COVID-19. 

“We continue to operate our treatment center in full compliance with all laws, recommended safety guidance, and in accordance with our own policies and procedures,” Amatus said in a statement.

But former ADC nurse Melanie Womack said only surgical masks were provided, not N95 respirators, which offer more protection.

There were also too few masks to go around, she said, and no face shields or gowns.

Nurses at Atlanta Detox Center allege the clinic took insufficient measures to protect them from the coronavirus.

DigitalVision

“There’s nothing to prevent a spread of COVID in the building,” Womack said, adding that Stephens “is more concerned with filling the beds than protecting the staff so there is no transmission.”

Womack said she ultimately resigned from the clinic two days before the layoffs after Stephens neglected to tell nurses a client was coming who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus.

When the client couldn’t furnish a negative test result, Womack turned them away.

Stephens overruled her decision, she said, and the client was admitted.

‘I just assume a lot of nurses don’t have a work ethic’

To Stephens, the problem was the nurses’ lack of dedication, according to an April 11 phone call with Warren that she shared with Business Insider.

“I just assume that a lot of nurses don’t have a work ethic,” Stephens said on the call. “As a group, the nurses seem much more interested in ‘whatever is more comfortable for me.'”

Their mindset, he added, is “I just want to sit back and take it easy and the moment stuff is asked of me, I’m going to bail.”

Stephens said the nurses were calling out sick too much, often staying home to take care of their children because their usual childcare was unavailable under lockdown.

“Have a neighbor watch the child,” he can be heard suggesting.

He also criticized nurses being called heroes and complained about the staff at a different facility quitting over insufficient personal protective equipment.

“I’d report every one of those people to the nursing board,” Stephens said on the call. “I’d report all of them for refusing to come in.”

Cleaning house

Two days after that call, Warren said, she and other nurses joined a Zoom video chat with Stephens and a representative for ADC’s parent company, Amatus Health.

Initially, Warren thought they had finally gotten through about the issues with Stephens and the need for better protection.

“It sounded like everything was hashed out on the call,” she told Business Insider. “They were told KN95 face masks were ordered.”

Later that day, however, the nurses started getting calls telling them they were being terminated.

Warren was actually out sick the day of the layoffs. She said she’s now facing $68,000 in medical bills after spending more than a week in the hospital.

In an April 15 email that Business Insider obtained, Stephens blamed the clinic’s “critical crisis in nursing” on Warren for failing “to adequately provide coverage.”

But Womack described Warren as “a leader” who “follows guidelines.”

“I have seen her fight since Day One. It makes no sense for what took place,” she said.

‘Retaliation’

Deborah Crockett, who was laid off after working as a nurse at ADC for nine months, believes the firings were “retaliation” for speaking up about coronavirus concerns.

The clinic was particularly at risk, she said, given that patients come from across the US.

The National Nurses United union set out empty pairs of shoes representing nurses that they say have died from COVID-19 at a demonstration across from the White House, on May 7, 2020.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I was just in awe when they made the decision to lay off all the full-time staff nursing,” Crockett told Business Insider. “I didn’t think it was justifiable. For this agency to terminate seven nursing employees who are dedicated and who had been working there diligently, I think it’s appalling and sad.”

According to Crockett, there had been no complaints about her work performance. She said she was even thanked on the Zoom call for staying on after her shift ended in the days before the layoffs.

“And this is how you repay me? I do feel some kind of way. I really do,” Crockett added.

Aiden Miller, an attorney representing the fired nurses, said they are considering suing.

“We feel very confident there have definitely been some violations of OSHA protections and we are exploring all other legal options,” Miller said, including a wrongful termination suit.

Similar cases have been reported across the country

Nurses across the US have reported being fired in retaliation for voicing concerns about inadequate protections.

In March, a nurse in Chicago filed a lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages after she said she was fired for warning coworkers about ineffective face masks.

On April 21, Detroit nurse Kenisa Barkai filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Detroit Medical Center, alleging she was fired for speaking out about understaffing and poor conditions.

“We were already struggling to manage and when COVID came about, it just made it a lot more dangerous,” Barkai told the Detroit Free Press.

On May 7, the National Nurses United union protested across from the White House, demanding better personal protective equipment and workers’ compensation benefits, and other improvements during the pandemic.

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