MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Martha Baker received the phone call around 10 a.m. Friday from an administrator at Jackson Memorial Hospital notifying her the hospital would soon be announcing furloughs and pay cuts.

“`Martha, we’re just gonna go forward with furloughs. No more talking,’” Baker recalled the official telling her.

Baker, the president of SEIU 1991, which represents more than 5,000 health care employees including nurses and doctors, was dumbfounded.

“Why would you do that at a time when we’re preparing for battle with this COVID virus?” she told CBS Miami.

Baker wasn’t the only one caught off guard. Joe Arriola, the chairman of the Public Health Trust which oversees Jackson, was also not told in advance of the decision made by Carlos Migoya, president of Jackson Health System, and hospital’s Chief Financial Officer, Mark Knight.

According to Baker and two other sources, Migoya and Knight initially planned on furloughing nurses and doctors in units that do not directly treat COVID patients.

When Arriola was notified of the plan, it prompted a heated phone call between Migoya and Arriola that quickly degenerated into a shouting match between the two men.

Members of the county commission, who were also left in the dark, reacted angrily as well, saying if the hospital was having financial problems they could have come to the county for assistance and that this was the wrong time to lay off hospital workers.

By late Friday afternoon, Migoya issued a hastily drafted email to employees announcing nurses and doctors would not be laid off – although other actions are being taken to affect them. According to Baker some employees are being forced to use up their vacation time over the next few weeks.

In his Friday email to employees, Migoya scrambled to say the cuts were necessary, citing the financial burden the hospital is sustaining because of the coronavirus.

“We must also ensure that Jackson can pay its employees and other bills during the coming months of emergency and in its aftermath,” Migoya wrote. “Our revenues have been devastated by the cancelation of so much non-emergency patient care, and it’s not clear when federal relief dollars will arrive or whether they will fill the gap.”

“This has forced us to make agonizing decisions in order to keep Jackson alive,” he added. He announced that the executive team would take a 20 percent pay cut (Migoya makes approximately $900,000 a year) and managers would take a 10 percent pay cut.

“I think they got it backwards,” Baker said. “I think we have to put the financial crisis on the back burner and focus on the health care crisis. And then we have to lean hard on our local, state and federal government, especially with stimulus packages, to restore this economy that’s been so stressed by this once in a 100-year flu epidemic.”

Baker said this is an unnecessary distraction for the workers who are putting their lives on the line.

“We’re climbing,” Baker said, referring to the number of cases entering the hospital. “We’re in the climb. We have no idea how high we’re going to climb. We don’t know if and when we’re going to level off. Hopefully, we do. But we’ve got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This is no time to be taking newborn ICU nurses and tell half of them to go home. We need to be training them to be hands-on deck. We can’t disappoint this community. There’s going to be no redo on this.”

Baker added: “There’s plenty of work, I believe, for everyone.”

She described the actions of the hospital as “despicable,” noting that Migoya’s announcement came exactly one week after an ICU nurse Araceli Ilagan died after contracting the virus.

“And for people to feel like we’re just another number, that Celi can die and that’s OK,” Baker said. “And then we’re gonna go on to, you know, if we get this three-week lull, let’s send some nurses and newborn ICU home. Let’s send some social workers at home. We don’t really need the people in billing. You know, let’s just send them home. And then in three weeks, when we need them all back, when we’re hoping with COVID patients, we’ll bring them all back. Why wouldn’t you say let’s figure out a way we can put them all to work right now?”

“Maybe some people do want some time before the storm hits,” she continued. “You know, let people rest up, spend some time with their families before they go into the trenches of every patient on their floor is gonna be COVID. You know, I think we could with volunteerism have people taken some time off?”

In a press release issued Monday, Rene Sanchez, president of AFSCME Local 1363, also decried the planned furloughs.

“This adds insult to injury,” said Sanchez. “Our members are receiving a 40 percent pay cut while managers and executives at the top are only losing 10 percent to 20 percent. This is completely unacceptable. Our employees are some of the lowest-paid but are being asked to sacrifice the most.”

Sanchez represents all health care technicians, LPNs, Practical Nurses, Respiratory Therapists, Nutritional Services, Transporters, Medical Assistants, Environmental Workers, Security, Finance, Engineering workers and all other supportive services.

Sanchez also complained the hospital is failing to provide the necessary protective equipment.

“Our members are being directed to clean rooms and care for COVID positive patients without proper protection,” said Sanchez. “In the midst of this pandemic our front-line workers are putting their lives at risk unnecessarily and it needs to end now.”

Sanchez said three members of Local 1363 have tested positive for COVID.

Added Baker: “I guess in rough times you learn how do people lead? And this is embarrassing that this is how our leadership team is choosing to lead.”’

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Jim DeFede

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