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NIH adjusts pay, personnel policies

July 3, 2014

Present at Wednesday’s Hospital Board meeting were (l-r) NIH Secretary Sandy Blumberg and CEO Victoria Alexander-Lane, board members John A. Ungersma, M.D., D. Scott Clark, M.D., Peter J. Watercott, M.C. Hubbard and Denise Hayden, as well as several hospital employees and administrative support staff. Photo by Mike Gervais

Northern Inyo Hospital has approved a balanced budget, but to continue operating in the black, administrators say the district must reconsider how it does business.
At a special meeting on Wednesday, the hospital Board of Directors approved a set of personnel policies that will allow NIH to maintain its balanced budget despite increasing costs and a decrease in the number of patients using the hospital.
“We’re just trying to turn the corner before the corner smacks us in the face,” said Hospital Administrator Victoria Alexander-Lane.
Chief of Fiscal Services Carrie Petersen said the hospital has been “dealing with the realities of the Affordable Care Act” and other issues.
She explained that the hospital has been able to keep up with cost increases each year by increasing the cost of services. But that method isn’t sustainable.
“We’ve reached the tipping point,” Petersen said. “People are leaving because we’re too expensive. We’ve got to bring our prices down to survive … We’re going to start by freezing prices, then look at the high-dollar services that people are leaving the area for” and explore ways to bring those costs down.
Alexander-Lane said that hospitals generally see a boom in patients when a new facility is built, “but that hasn’t happened here. Our prices are so high. We’re between a rock and a hard place … We are in a very precarious situation. There are a lot of things we’re trying to look at to cut without laying anyone off. Personnel policies are only the tip of the iceberg.”
The board approved several new personnel polices that deal with pay scales, human resources and payroll policies, leaves of absence and paid time off.
The pay scale and pay practice policy the board adopted Wednesday is designed to ensure that NIH employees are paid in step with similar “critical access” hospitals in the state.
Alexander-Lane said that some hospital employees are paid more than the average, while some are paid less.
Under the new policy, those who are making less than average will receive a raise to get them in line with the rest of the state. The hospital will not be cutting wages of those who are being overpaid. Alexander-Lane said those who are making more than the adopted scale will have their wages frozen. That means they will not receive a raise until the pay scale “catches up” with them.
Any new hires will be paid within the set scale.
Hospital Chief Human Relations Officer Georgan Stottlemyre said that less than 1 percent of the hospital staff is currently making less than average, 56 percent are within the newly adopted scale and 46 percent are above and will be frozen at their current salary.
A resident at the meeting asked if administration took into account the high cost of living in Inyo County. Alexander-Lane said that the cost of living is not something NIH can control. “It’s a privilege to live here and you have to look at it that way,” she said, explaining that, when the cost of living is taken into account, she personally took a pay cut to come to the Eastern Sierra.
Next, the hospital board approved a policy adjusting compensation for hospital employees that can also serve as translators. Before Wednesday’s decision, hospital employees who could serve as interpreters received a 3.5 percent pay increase. “We checked with other hospitals and nobody gets extra for speaking Spanish,” Alexander-Lane said.
The board also updated language to its pay scale and pay adjustment policy, removing all language relating to pay steps. The hospital has done away with steps for raises. Now, when an employee receives a favorable evaluation, they are eligible for raises in 2 percent increments rather than a stepped system. According to Alexander-Lane, “if your performance is satisfactory, your are eligible for a 2 percent increase. If you go above and beyond, you could get more.”
Under the stepped system, each employee would move up a step every year, and each step comes with a new pay increase.
Alexander-Lane said the new system will be an incentive for employees to perform well. It is also an incentive for managers to provide honest evaluations of employees. If an employee’s performance is less than satisfactory, they will not be eligible for a raise.
The Hospital Board also adopted a new policy that clarifies issues with employee anniversary dates. In the past, if an employee required a prolong leave of absence for medical or personal reasons, when they returned back to work, their anniversary date would change to the date they returned.
This caused a problem for staff members who happened to miss work during their anniversary. Under the new policy, an employee’s original anniversary date will continue to be recognized if a prolonged absence is required.
Another policy approved this week updates the hospital’s stance on paid vacation. It states that any employee is entitled to a two-week vacation. If a staff member would like to take a longer vacation, he or she will be required to have it approved by a manager, who will determine if the department can operate with an employee on leave for more than two weeks.
One employee at Wednesday’s meeting said the new policy is “a really good idea.”
Board Member MC Hubbard added that department managers will accommodate employees who want longer vacations “when appropriate.”
The board also updated its Zero Pay policy. Under the policy, if an employee is sent home due to a lack of patients in the hospital, they can receive “zero pay” for the hours of work they missed. When accepting zero pay, an employee does not receive an hourly wage for the hours of work they missed, but they are able to accrue vacation time and time needed to receive benefits.
Zero pay can only be used if the employee has 56 or more hours on the job during a pay period.
One employee said the policy raises concerns for staff who might be sent home. She said that employees won’t be guaranteed hours, so they can’t be sure they will earn enough to make a living.
Alexander-Lane said the answer is to get the volume of patients up in the hospital, which is a goal for administration. If the hospital is able to attract more patients, staff won’t have to be sent home.
The board also adopted a new policy that prevents hospital employees from accruing vacation time while taking leave or vacation. “You don’t earn vacation when you’re on vacation,” Alexander-Lane said. Similar to the Zero Pay policy, employees will have to work at least 56 hours in a pay period to accrue leave.
Hospital Board Member John Ungersma, MD, said the hospital is moving in the right direction. “This is strategic planning. We’re looking way down the road,” Ungersma said. “We’re in the black and 60 percent of rural hospitals in the state are in the red. We have a good institution” but changes are necessary to keep up with the times.

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