Judge Finds Meadowlands Hospital Guilty of Multiple Labor Violations

Lilo H. Stainton | September 30, 2016 | Health Care
Employee union estimates that ruling will cost hospital at least $2.5 million

Employees at the embattled Meadowlands Hospital stand to collect millions of dollars in back pay and missing benefits — and could wind up with a friendlier workplace — under a major government decision that found hospital owners guilty of more than a dozen federal labor law violations.

A judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that, among other things, owners of the Secaucus hospital underpaid some nurses by nearly $40 an hour, improperly dismissed others with decades of experience, and threatened to close down units — prompting further job loss — if union officials shared their concerns with the press.

The ruling, which deals with issues dating back to 2011, calls on Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center to make whole the aggrieved workers, something officials with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, which represents 300 Meadowlands employees, calculate will cost well over $2.5 million. They estimate that one in 10 NLRB decisions is this substantial.

“These workers have persevered and continued to provide care to the community, even as their rights were systematically and continuously violated,” said Ann Twomey, HPAE president. “We applaud this decision, and intend to pursue every legal means to make sure that Meadowlands’ owners set aside adequate funds to repay workers their rightful wages and earned benefits.”

But any payout may not come quickly. The hospital’s ownership group is desperate to sell the hospital — now struggling to attract patients — and remains locked in a dispute with New Jersey regulators over tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines it was assessed for failing to disclose financial information required by law. A spokesman for the hospital declined to respond to multiple requests for comment about the decision and the hospital’s ability to pay.

Jeanne Oterson, HPAE’s executive director, said the longstanding nature of the workers’ complaints also underscore the need for greater state oversight — something critics of Meadowlands Hospital have suggested for years. A representative from the Department of Health, which regulates the hospital, declined to comment on the ruling. The DOH has received an application from the owner of a plastic surgery center in Hackensack to purchase the facility for $12.2 million, some $5.4 million less than it sold for in 2010.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), longtime chair of the health committee, raised similar concerns. “It would be advisable for us to examine current regulations and oversight, and where necessary, empower certain departments with additional oversight, authority, and enforcement including but not limited to the departments of Health, Labor and Consumer
Affairs,” Vitale said. “Healthcare workers are our front-line professionals who deserve and require our support and protection so that they may do the important work with which we have empowered them, and where they have dedicated their careers.”

The current ownership group — led by Dr. Richard Lipsky, the board chair, and vice chair Tamara Dunaev — took over the near-bankrupt facility six years ago and, according to their testimony, invested heavily to keep the doors open to protect workers jobs and community health. But an analysis by NJ Spotlight found that the group quickly looked for ways to cut costs and secure new revenue, including a less-than-successful program to encourage Russian women who would pay cash to come and give birth at the Hudson County hospital, a process that guaranteed their baby American citizenship.

But the facility failed to flourish. Disputes with the union flared quickly, followed by repeated state and federal inspections that recorded a range of health and safety violations. The hospital wracked up more than $200,000 in state fines and millions in federal tax liens and spent years battling health insurance companies in court. Despite these difficulties, NJ Spotlight found the primary owners paid themselves a total of $9 million between 2010 and 2013 and spent some $8 million with other businesses they owned or controlled in return for equipment or services deployed to Meadowlands Hospital. (Financial data from 2014 and 2015 remains outstanding.)

[related]Several of the cost-cutting measures were at the heart of the HPAE’s complaints about labor violations. The union said workers suffered economically and emotionally when hospital leaders eliminated 12-hour shifts, in violation of their contract, dismissed longtime workers — some with three or four decades on the job — failed to contribute to the retirement plan, as promised, and replaced an existing healthcare plan with versions that cost families thousands of dollars more each year in premiums.

In addition, HPAE said the hospital abused more than a dozen “nurse interns” by paying them $7.50 an hour, instead of the $46 they were entitled to. The program lacked structure and inexperienced interns were sometimes left on their own to provide the same treatment as well-established nursing staff. Several interns testified that they would sometimes work several shifts a week at their “intern rate,” but would be paid more to do the same work at nights and weekends, if the unit was short staffed. Nursing educators from other facilities said this was far from standard protocol.

Administrative law judge Steven Davis largely agreed. In his 146-page decision, Davis ordered the hospital to pony up lost wages, missing benefits, and interest for the nurse interns and dozens of other staff members who were underpaid or wrongly dismissed. He also ordered the owners to reinstate the 12-hour shifts and adhere to the union contracts, bargaining provisions, and other employee protections going forward. He gave the hospital two weeks to alert all staff of the decision and three weeks to confirm to the NLRB that the owners were addressing these problems.

Davis also reaffirmed the workers’ right to free speech. Both Lipsky and Dunaev testified that union leaders were causing economic hardships for the hospital, in violation of the contract, by calling for regulatory inspections or sharing their concerns with other advocates and the media. But the judge largely dismissed their explanations, noting that even Dunaev had conceded that the information union leaders shared with the press may have been unflattering, but it was accurate.

“These actions constitute the Union’s legitimate presentation of validly held beliefs to the media of the alleged effect of the Respondent’s actions on the Hospital’s patients and employees. They do not constitute economic pressure activity,” Davis wrote.

He also cited Dunaev for threatening workers jobs when she suggested the hospital might have to close a unit if the union went through with plans for a press conference, in 2012. HPAE held the media event, on October 2 that year, and on November 1 Meadowlands Hospital closed the rehabilitation unit, relieving some 20 staffers of their jobs.

Davis said the NLRB has consistently protected workers’ free speech when it comes to labor issues, citing a 2007 ruling involving Valley Hospital Medical Center that dealt directly with communications with newspaper reporters. “The Board stated that in the health care field, patient welfare and working conditions are often inextricably intertwined. Employees’ statements regarding patient care and/or staffing levels have been found protected where it was clear from the context of the statements that they related to a labor dispute and/or employees’ terms and conditions of employment.”