Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Sad Tale of Human Resources at St. Vincent

From Mayor Frank Gilbert of Tull


Maybe it’s not fair to compare Chris in Human Resources with Pontius Pilate. Still, that IS who came to mind as he brushed me off and washed his hands of the matter.

Chris and I spoke – briefly – because a constituent and friend of mine told a story about her work at St. Vincent Health System in Little Rock that was hard to believe.

According to her, she and all the others members of St. Vincent’s housekeeping department had been ‘outsourced.’ They no longer worked for the hospital, but for a large, multinational corporation that had contracted to provide services while keeping current employees.

The first indication of a problem was that the former St. Vincent employees were told that they were on probationary status with the new employer. All those years on the job meant nothing. They were starting over. And the new employer had a ‘two strikes and your out’ policy.

It didn’t take long before workers were being fired for second offenses.

In every case the new employees seemed to be younger, Hispanic females. Of course the new employees were hired without health insurance and other benefits the previous employees had enjoyed. They were paid a tad more, but no where near enough to make up for the loss of benefits.

The call I made to St. Vincent was awkward.

It really is none of my business how they operate their hospital. Who they fire, hire or outsource has nothing to do with the two-bit mayor of a small town. I acknowledged that to the young lady who answered the phone. Still, she was kind enough to direct my call to their Human Resources Department.

I knew immediately how I was going to be received. The voice that answered was flat and the speaker seemed to be finishing a sigh at this latest interruption. “This is Chris.” It was obvious that he was busy and couldn’t be bothered with a more complete (or correct) greeting.

After hearing this sad story, Chris did confirm that there had been an outsourcing. But he could not comment on any of the other components. After all, it no longer had anything to do with St. Vincent’s Human Resources Department. How convenient.

Maybe it wasn’t wrong to compare him to Pontius Pilate.
Chris did ask for the name of the complainer. I don’t think he even found it odd that he only identified himself by first name, but wanted me give full information on a woman who was in fear of losing her job – and her health insurance. When I refused, he tut-tutted that there wasn’t much he could do without it. But he assured me he would pass the concern on anyway.

At that point I was more worried about what he WOULD do if given the name. I’m pretty sure he could have gotten it to his colleague with the new housekeeping provider.

The sad truth appears to be that two corporations, one a large, local and the other a huge, international have teamed up to take advantage of two groups who are powerless to do anything about it.

My friend is a hard-working, dedicated employee. She needs her job and would be in dire straits if she lost either her check or her health insurance. I’m sure that most of the other employees that St. Vincent cut loose are in that same boat. The employees who are replacing them are desperate for a pay check as well. They are certainly in no position to haggle about a benefits package.

It is a safe bet that St. Vincent, like every other private business in the country, is suffering from financial constraints. I just wonder if this assault on their former housekeeping employees and abuse of replacement workers is the best way to address it.

When I checked the phone book to call St. Vincent, they had over 60 listings in the white pages. The hospital currently has an advertising campaign running on central Arkansas television extolling their virtues. I’ll wager there are other departments in St. Vincent’s system that have larger payrolls. The potential for cost savings are not limited to housekeeping. It’s just easier there.

In these trying economic times it is good for all of us to remind ourselves of the old truism, “Following the path of least resistance is what makes rivers and men crooked.” The same is true of hospitals.

Years from now, if we have a government-operated health care system it will be because of short-sighted, self-serving decisions like this one. St. Vincent is not the only company that is acting this way. Lots of companies and individuals have followed this path of least resistance. The result is a ready-made constituency for every demagogue who rails against greedy businessmen and heartless corporations.

If businesses don’t want “play or pay” schemes overseen by bureaucrats; if doctors and hospitals don’t want more cost/benefit schedules and terms of service requirements imposed on them; if every patient in the country doesn’t want to see British style shortages and rationing we have to stop doing what we are doing.

Chris in Human Resources is not a villain. He probably isn’t even able to change the system he is caught up in. But someone is. Someone made the decision to dump long term employees and to empower a third party to take advantage of the workers who replaced them. That someone needs to explain how they came to that decision. That someone needs to be held accountable.

They need to be accountable not just for another step toward government controlled health care, but for the more serious offense of taking advantage of the most powerless in our country for their own benefit.


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