Union under fire at Wettlaufer inquiry for defending problem nurse

Within hours of finding out Elizabeth Wettlaufer was suspended for making a medication error, the Ontario Nurses' Association filed a grievance on her behalf, a public inquiry hears.

The Ontario Nurses' Association filed a grievance over Wettlaufer's suspension without first investigating

The Ontario Nursing Association's Jill Allingham, a labour relations officer, testifies at the Wettlaufer inquiry. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Within hours of finding out Elizabeth Wettlaufer was suspended for making a medication error, the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) filed a grievance on her behalf, a public inquiry heard Thursday. 

There was no investigation about why Wettlaufer was being suspended or whether she had put patients at the Caressant Care nursing home in Woodstock, Ont., at risk. Last June, Wettlaufer was convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault.

Unknown to her co-workers, managers or union, Wettlaufer killed seven people while she worked at Caressant Care. 

In fact, ONA labour relations officer Jill Allingham, who testified at the inquiry about her negotiating role, pressed forward with the suspension and subsequent termination grievance after she got Wettlaufer's personnel file, which detailed some of her many errors and inappropriate behaviours. 

And Allingham kept pressing Caressant Care to seal Wettlaufer's personnel file, give her a letter of reference and a cash settlement even after Wettlaufer told her she'd gotten a new job at Meadow Park Long-Term Care in London, Ont., another nursing home for which Allingham was the labour relations officer. 

Wettlaufer killed one patient at Meadow Park. 

Asked if she told Meadow Park managers that there had been problems with Wettlaufer that could have endangered patients, Allingham said she wouldn't do that. 

"You could still tell Meadow Park that Ms. Wettlaufer could benefit from additional supervision or training regarding medication, could you not?" one of the lawyers for the home asked Allingham. 

"No, I wouldn't do that," Allingham replied. 

Wettlaufer abruptly quit Meadow Park, citing a drug and alcohol addiction and saying she would get treatment. Instead, she was hired at a temp agency for nurses which placed her at a nursing home in Paris, Ont., where she tried to kill another patient. 

Long day of testimony

Allingham was grilled on her role in negotiating deals for Wettlaufer after she made mistakes, and the lack of investigations she conducted when fighting on Wettlaufer's behalf. 

She testified for four hours Thursday, taking the most heat from the lawyer for Caressant Care, David Golden, who suggested she should have seen Wettlaufer's extensive record of medication errors and not proceeded with a grievance.

Also testifying Thursday was Wanda Saninesi, the vice-president of human resources at Caressant Care, who said the home was hamstrung by parts of the collective agreement and that if Wettlaufer hadn't been in a union, she would have been fired a lot sooner. 

But the union contends it had to defend Wettlaufer or it could have been brought before the labour relations board for failing to represent her. 

On Friday, the inquiry will hear from Rob Vanderheyden, the administrator of Meadow Park while Wettlaufer worked there, and from doctors and pharmacists who worked with nursing homes in the region. 

Inquiry expected to last until fall

The Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System was established on Aug. 1, 2017, after Wettlaufer was sentenced to eight concurrent life terms. It began hearings on June 5, and is examining how Wettlaufer's crimes went undetected for so long.

Her killing spree began in 2007 and continued until 2016, when she finally confessed to a psychiatrist and a social worker. Until then, her employers, police and Ontario's licensing body for nurses had no idea eight patients had been murdered and six more poisoned with injections of massive doses of insulin.

The inquiry is scheduled to last until September.