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Over 700 St. Charles workers sign petition, refuse to repay overpayments without outside audit; union files BOLI complaint

Joel Hernandez, ONA vice president and St. Charles Bend registered nurse
Oregon Nurses Association
Joel Hernandez, ONA vice president and St. Charles Bend registered nurse

(Update: More information from union)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Two unions representing workers at St. Charles Health System have launched their latest volley against the financially troubled organization, with hundreds of workers signing a petition and refusing to repay some $2 million in overpayments without an outside audit to confirm the figures are accurate.

The Oregon Nurses Association, meanwhile, confirmed it has filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, as it threatened to do in a cease-and-desist letter after the repayment demands arose earlier this month, calling such actions a violation of labor law, a claim which the hospital denied.

ONA spokesman Kevin Mealy said, "After St. Charles refused to rescind its unlawful attempts at repayment as we asked in our 'cease and desist' letter, ONA has referred this matter to the Bureau of Labor and Industries."

St. Charles Public Information Officer Lisa Goodman said while the workers' personal information was not breached in the Ultimate Kronos Group ransomware attack, the health system was "impacted by the outage, which meant we couldn't access timecard data throughout the eight-week period."

Here's the full news release from the two unions (NewsChannel 21 has reached out to St. Charles for a response or statement):

St. Charles Workers Tell Hospital System "Do the Math!"

Members of the Oregon Nurses Association and the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals at St. Charles Health System facilities said Wednesday have launched a petition drive indicating they “no longer have confidence in their employer’s accounting and payroll practices.”

The petition is in response to an ongoing cascade of errors and failures on the part of St. Charles that has resulted in more than $2 million in alleged overpayments, alleged underpayments, and ongoing demands for reimbursement. Union members are pledging they will not agree to any repayment plan proposed by St. Charles until an independent third-party audit has been conducted providing specific detail on when, or if, overpayments occurred.

The full text of the petition reads:  

“We, the employees of the St. Charles Health System, no longer have confidence in our employer’s accounting and payroll practices due to the litany of errors claimed to have been made within the past year.  We will not agree on any repayment plans for alleged overpayment by St. Charles unless and until a third-party independent audit has been conducted which proves overpayments occurred, including the specific dates and amounts of the overpayment(s) in question. Should St. Charles seek recoupment of alleged overpayment through payroll deduction without express permission, we will seek any and all remedies, legal and otherwise.”

“Staff are furious,” said Joel Hernandez, a nurse at St. Charles Bend and Vice-President of the ONA Board of Directors. “We are hearing from workers who got a check in March because St. Charles said they were underpaid. Those same staff are now hearing from St. Charles that, in fact, those payments were also wrong, and the nurses have to pay those funds back. When pushed, St. Charles says they do not have the capacity to help workers figure out if they owe money or not.”

In an email to ONA labor staff, Hillary Forrest, Director of Human Resources said, “We (St. Charles) have taken steps to ensure that each caregiver has the tools needed to verify our calculations of amounts due…Once the caregiver has confirmed the accuracy of the overpayments, they need to provide us with a written commitment telling us their preference for repayment on or before August 29, 2022.” 

“So, basically, what we heard from St. Charles is, ‘We sent you a bill. Now it is up to you to determine if we got the amount right,’’’ said Hernandez. “It’s outrageous. St. Charles’ payroll system failed for over four months and now, nurses and other front line health care providers are being told we must do the math on St. Charles’ behalf?”

In another email, Nicole Ponder, Manager of St. Charles’ Human Resources, wrote, “it would be very time-consuming and burdensome for us (St. Charles) to try to provide all the backup data for each bargaining unit member.  We simply don’t have the resources to do that.” 

“I can guarantee you if I handed St. Charles a Post-It note listing all of my missed lunches and rest breaks, they wouldn’t just take my word for it,” said ONA nurse Megan Bovi, who has worked at St. Charles for 15 years. “They would ask for documentation and evidence. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars here, without good evidence or documentation. No one would just roll over and agree to pay money back without evidence, but this is exactly what St. Charles is expecting us to do.”  

Both unions are calling upon St. Charles management to immediately engage the services of an outside, independent auditing firm to address this issue and provide clarity and detail for health care workers.  

“We need transparency and accountability regarding claims of overpayment since this could leave our members thousands of dollars in debt,” says Frank DeWolf, an Electrophysiology Technologist at St. Charles and a member of OFNHP. “Without a complete audit we have no way of ensuring the amounts being proposed to our members are actually accurate.” 

In response to some questions, ONA Chief of Staff Scott Palmer provided this information to NewsChannel 21 on Thursday:

How many nurses have signed the petition?

As of this afternoon, well over 700 nurses had signed the pledge. That is over half of all the nurses we represent across the St. Charles system. We anticipate that number will continue to increase in the coming days.

Will we be presenting the petition to the Health System?

Yes. ONA intends to continue gathering signatures on the petition until early next week at which time we will deliver the petition to management.

How many employees were affected?

That is unclear, but we know, for example, that over 700 nurses at the St. Charles Bend facility alone received notice from St. Charles of an alleged overpayment. There are a total of 915 nurses in the Bend hospital, so that means about 75% of the nursing staff received notices. We would expect those percentages to be the same at both Prineville and Redmond, the other two facilities where ONA represents nurses in the system.

What is the next step for the union?

We have submitted our complaint to BOLI and hope that we will see some movement on an investigation shortly. ... We also continue to explore all available means of preventing St. Charles from forcing staff to repay these alleged overpayments, including potential legal action. ONA and our colleagues at OFNHP are 100% committed to getting St. Charles to bring in an independent third-party auditor to examine each individual staff member’s payroll history to determine if overpayments did, in fact, occur. Until that is done, our members are completely unwilling to just take St. Charles at their word regarding the amounts allegedly overpaid.

How can the union stop the employer from taking money out of paychecks?

Our initial cease and desist letter to St. Charles, which they ignored, laid out the case for why simply docking staff pay would be illegal and could lead to significant civil penalties. St. Charles should think very, very carefully about their next steps here. ONA and OFNHP will not hesitate to pursue legal remedies should the hospital system decide to ignore Oregon statute and begin deducting money from paychecks at will.

The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) is the state’s largest nursing organization. We are a professional association and labor union which represents more than 15,000 nurses and allied health workers throughout the state including nearly 1,200 frontline nurses working at multiple St. Charles Health facilities in Central Oregon. We are a proud state affiliate of AFT and the American Nurses Association. ONA’s mission is to advocate for nursing, quality health care and healthy communities. For more information visit: www.OregonRN.org

Founded in 1979, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP), AFT Local 5017 is a union of more than 5,000 nurses and health professionals in Oregon and SW Washington including nearly 150 workers at St. Charles. We know that when healthcare workers are united across job classifications and disciplines, we become a more powerful voice for our patients, our community, and ourselves. For more information visit: www.ofnhp.org

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