Florala hospital staff: Why not pay us?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nearly a month after the closure of  the Florala Memorial Hospital, scores of former employees are still waiting for pay on vacation time.

Now they’re asking why.

An estimated 50 employees lost their jobs on Dec. 27, 2013, when they were given a two-hour notice that the hospital was closing. Since then, hospital officials have cited financial reasons for the closure after it was unable to meet the needed patient numbers to turn a profit.

Previously, owner Dr. Robert Devrnja said the hospital needed to average 13 patients per day in the 28-bed facility to operate; however, occupancy averaged between one and three patients a day.

Bonnie Boston spent the last 10 years as the hospital’s medical records director and physician credentialing specialist. She said the hospital owes her pay for 160 hours of unpaid vacation time, totaling more than $2,200.

“They owe my sister, too,” Boston said. “When we were called in and told about the closing, (hospital officials) promised us they would pay back our vacation time. They told us to come back the next Friday. We did. No money. They told us to come back the Friday after that. No money then either.”

On Fri., Jan. 17, Boston said she spoke with hospital officials who said steps were being taken to pay employees.

“She told me that we’d be paid eventually,” Boston said of her conversation with a hospital official. “She said they were trying to sell off equipment to pay us. I told her they were the ones with the airplanes, the jobs and a house, and we’re the ones with nothing – just debt.”

Boston said other employees are owed “a lot more than me.”

“We never got to take a vacation because there was no one there to cover for you,” she said. “That’s why there’s such large numbers of hours owed.”

Still, Boston said she’s one of the lucky ones. She spent three weeks on unemployment before finding a job with an Andalusia physician’s office.

“I’m thankful to have a job,” she said. “At 58, it’s hard to find a spot in the workplace. Some of the nurses were lucky enough to find a job, but housekeeping and dietary are still without work.

“We hate being pushed around like this,” she said with a catch in her voice. “That’s 54 people without a job, and most of them needed that money that’s owed to them, that they worked so hard for, to survive. We want to know why it’s taking so long.”

Susie Bettis is one of the unemployed, but also considers herself among the lucky ones. A 29-year employee, Bettis worked as a licensed practical nurse.

“Every Friday, we go back, and they tell us we can’t get it,” Bettis said of her back pay. “I’ve worked there so long, I don’t even know how much they owe me.”

Bettis said she will draw unemployment benefits until her retirement benefits start. Now, she has time to take her husband, who recently suffered two strokes, to physical therapy.

“I spoke with Bill Stone (the hospital’s lawyer), and I told him it was sad,” she said. “Some people got theirs, but others didn’t, and I told him it wasn’t fair. He said that he would call me back and let me know when we’d get our money. That was last Wednesday. He said he would call Thursday, but I haven’t heard from him.”

Attorney Bill Stone told The Star-News Monday that hospital officials are working aggressively to lease the hospital, but that he couldn’t comment on employee pay issues.

“All I can say at this point about the financial situation is that the hospital is going through closure,” Stone said. “The hospital is severely in debt, and we’re actively working with everyone to fund those debts. We are working to provide a long-term solution for the community of Florala.”