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L.A. County wants back money mistakenly paid to nurses

After arbitrator's decision, about 600 relief nurses who fill hospital staffing gaps must repay $1.8 million in excess payments. Payroll deductions will resume next month.

March 18, 2013|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. County/USC Medical Center.
L.A. County/USC Medical Center. (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Fiona Henlon still relives the shock of the letter that arrived three years ago.

Citing a breakdown in its payroll system, Los Angeles County health officials explained that they had mistakenly paid the registered nurse an extra $6,200 over a two-year period. And the government was demanding the money back.

Henlon, 45, said she hadn't realized that she'd received the added money because she has no set schedule and her paychecks fluctuate.

"It is unfair," she said. "They made an error, and we are going to suffer for it."

Henlon is one of roughly 600 relief nurses used to fill county hospital staffing gaps who officials now say must repay a total of $1.8 million.

The problem began in 2005, when the county was struggling to find nurses to cover all its shifts. Officials began paying a 4% "manpower shortage" bonus, which continued until the end of 2008.

But the county discovered a "communication breakdown" and said the bonus payments should have stopped in 2006.

In 2010, the county sent letters to Henlon and other relief nurses, and began deducting repayments from their checks.

That led to a court fight with the nurses' union, Service Employees International Union Local 721, which won an L.A. County Superior Court injunction halting the deductions. An arbitrator later ruled the county was entitled to the money, and payroll deductions to repay the bonuses are scheduled to resume next month.

Elizabeth Jacobi, the health department's human resources director, acknowledged the county made an error. But she said the agency needs to recoup the money.

"These are public funds," she said. "This isn't money they should have received."

Katarina del Valle Thompson, a registered nurse who represents other nurses for the union, said repaying the money will be a personal and financial burden for the relief nurses, who are paid hourly and generally don't receive benefits. She said the nurses deserved the bonus because staffing shortages continued.

"We feel betrayed by the county," she said. "Nurses had paid taxes on this money and had worked in good faith."

Thompson said the issue underscores the county's disorganization. "It really does highlight that there are real problems within the system," she said.

David Tashjian, who the county says owes about $14,500, has worked as a relief nurse for 23 years.

"We never got a notice that we were getting a bonus or that it was getting shut off," he said. "All I know is that because of somebody's negligence, it is costing the [relief] nurses."

Jacqueline Bishop was a relief nurse for 12 years before getting hired for a permanent position at County/USC Medical Center last year. Bishop said she thought the 2010 letter, which said she owed thousands of dollars, was a mistake. Bishop noted the deductions will resume April 15.

"They are going to hit us on tax day," she said.

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