GENEVA, Ohio — Unionized nurses at University Hospitals Geneva Medical Center claim the hospital system deliberately excluded them from receiving bonus pay for their work during the pandemic.
The union representing the nurses, the Ohio Nurses Association’s collective bargaining arm, has filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board against UH, alleging discrimination and unfair labor practices.
At issue is whether the unionized nurses at UH Geneva are eligible for the appreciation bonus pay. According to a statement from a UH spokesperson, compensation for nurses at UH Geneva is dictated by the collective bargaining agreement. However, nurses claim the contract permits bonuses at UH’s discretion. Nurses also claim that they received a bonus of $150 in gift cards by way of 30,000 UH Appreciates points, an internal rewards system offered by the hospital system. The UH Appreciates points were also included in the total $1250 in bonus pay offered to regular-status employees.
In a Dec. 10 letter, UH CEO Cliff Megerian recognized the difficult, stressful and exhausting work performed by UH nurses and staff throughout the pandemic. As a result of the “deep gratitude and in celebration of [their] service,” Megerian announced that caregivers and team members “other than managers and above and physicians” would receive the UH Appreciates points. Additionally, “eligible regular-status caregivers” will also receive a $500 appreciation bonus for their performance in 2021.
Less than two weeks later, Megerian issued a follow up letter, stating that additional COVID relief funds from the federal government were going to be used to provide an additional $750 bonus, bringing the total bonus pay to $1250.
“We are pleased to announce that all regular status employees, including our residents in training, other than managers and above and physicians, will be awarded another appreciation bonus for 2021 in the amount of $750,” Megerian’s Dec. 21 letter states.
UH Geneva nurses Heather Abate, Katie Lewis and Jen Hughes said the $1250 bonus they thought they were receiving provided an instant morale boost, especially after an extremely tenuous year, which brought surges in COVID patients thanks to the delta and, later, the omicron variants.
“I think as a [group] we understand that you don’t pass alone — whether you have COVID or you were in an accident. We went in those rooms. We geared up and we sat with those patients until they took their last breath. We held their hand to make sure they didn’t die alone,” Lewis said. “There was some joy from understanding that the upper management — which wasn’t on the front lines — understood that there was a mental aspect to this. A ‘thank you’ was going to be appreciated. Everyone was that much happier. They appreciate what I’m doing. There was more of a spring to your step.”
That "spring in their step" turned into a dead stop four months later. Megerian’s April 5 letter suddenly excluded unionized employees from eligibility for the bonus. The letter also suddenly included physicians as being eligible.
“As a gesture of appreciation for your dedication to service, we announced late last year that UH would award Appreciation Bonuses to our regular status caregivers, other than managers and above and unionized employees, but including physicians and residents in training,” Megerian’s April 5 letter states.
Nurses at UH Geneva, who are the only unionized nurses in the UH system, felt bamboozled.
“We did everything for that first year and a half, being the only ones allowed in the room. To then get that email that says, ‘well, you did all the work but now you’re not worthy enough for this,’ it was very disrespectful and a lot of us were extremely hurt by it,” said Heather Abate, a UH Geneva nurse of nearly 6 years.
Jen Hughes, a nurse at UH Geneva for five years, said the sudden exclusion from eligibility for the $1250 bonus was extremely disheartening.
“The last two years I think have really taken its toll on an already short system,” Hughes said. “It was a big blow to your gut, knowing all of the things that we did and the extra shifts that we took.”
The nurses at UH Geneva later met with UH leadership to discuss their exclusion from being eligible for the bonus. The meeting left them even more angry, they said.
“I think what hurt most was their quote: “It was a conscious decision [to exclude unionized nurses],” Lewis said. “Talk about a blow to the gut. For some reason the doctors are worthy of the money but we’re not? Even though we were the only ones allowed in the room and had to do everything for the first year and a half?”
In a statement, a UH spokesperson reiterated the hospital system’s position that the unionized nurses are ineligible for the appreciation bonus because of the collective bargaining agreement.
“University Hospitals appreciates all of our caregivers who have served the health care needs of our patients and our Northeast Ohio communities throughout the tragic and demanding two-years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late last year, UH announced 2021 appreciation bonuses in the amount of $1,250 for eligible employees who were in regular-status roles as of Dec. 31, 2021 and remain employed through the date of the bonus payment later in April. The bonuses are a well-deserved recognition of above and beyond service during this extraordinary period of time.
Managers and above, union employees, and those who are non-compliant with the CMS COVID-19 vaccination mandate are not eligible for the bonuses.
Compensation for nurses at UH Geneva Medical Center, who are the only unionized nurses in our health system, is dictated by the collective bargaining agreement."
After additional procedural conversations set forth by the collective bargaining agreement, the Ohio Nurses Association’s collective bargaining arm filed grievances against UH with the National Labor Relations Board.
The nurses have also collected signatures from all 47 nurses and nearly 650 non-bargaining unit hospital employees and community members.
Hughes hopes, in the end, UH truly shows its appreciation through actions — not just words.
“In a shortage of nurses right now nationally, now is not the time to consciously be making these types of decisions that could ultimately affect our communities,” Hughes said.