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Is it legal to require nurses to obtain BSNs or face losing their jobs?

Wednesday December 28, 2011
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The hospital I work at has Magnet status as a future goal. Seventy percent of the RNs employed there do not have bachelor’s degrees. We were told if we did not have our degrees completed by 2017, we would be fired. I have heard that other facilities grandfathered in their nondegreed employees. We were hired based on our level of education at that time, with no mention of obtaining higher degrees in our contracts. Is this requirement legal? I don’t believe it is, but how and why would they threaten us like this?


Nancy Brent replies:

Dear Anne,

Since most employees are at-will, private employers are fairly free to change work requirements as long as they give adequate notice to employees affected by any change. An exception to this general statement could apply to those who are contractual employees. These could be individuals who have an employment agreement spelling out the conditions of employment and any changes, if any, that can occur, or they could be employees who are members of a union. For a union member, the bargaining agreement is the contract between the employer and the union member employees.

Another exception that some states have developed include the employee handbook being a contract of employment between the employer and employee. If changes occur in the handbook and the employee is promised (and accepts) something of value along with the change, such as a raise or more vacation time, then "consideration" (a legal term) takes place. If consideration occurs, then it can be argued that a "contract" has been formed. Under this approach, no additional changes in employment conditions can be valid unless additional things of value are offered to the employee and the employee accepts them.

You have stated you have a "contract" of employment. Consulting with a nurse attorney or attorney in your state can help you determine if you do indeed have an employment contract. The nurse attorney also can help by advising you about your next step in this situation.

It is important for you to be aware that the future of nursing and nursing practice is changing. In its report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health,” the Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stated that “dramatic changes in nursing practice and education” are essential, and took the position that nurses must take a bigger role in redesigning the U.S. health care system (“President’s Message,” The Illinois Nurse, December 2011, 2).

The report identifies many recommendations, including that nurses achieve high levels of education and training and, by 2020, increase the proportion of nurses with a BS degree to 80% and double the number of nurses with a doctorate. In addition to the Magnet Status goal, your employer may want to be in compliance with these recommendations.

It wouldn’t hurt to discuss your concerns with nursing management, including the CNO. This step would not cost you or other nurses at the facility anything but your time, and perhaps positive results would occur on both sides of this situation.


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.