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Northwestern gave bonuses to hospital employees working through COVID-19 pandemic. Now, some will have to give the money back

On Thursday, a day before employees were set to receive their first paychecks with the extra cash, some received an email explaining that the money would be clawed back because they had been deemed ineligible for the “special compensation program.”

The logo of Northwestern Medicine File

Weeks after Northwestern Medicine’s chief executive sent a laudatory email to his entire workforce announcing that employees were being awarded bonuses for remaining on the front lines during the COVID-19 crisis, some of those workers were informed Thursday that they were no longer eligible and the extra cash they were set to receive would ultimately be taken back.

“Recognizing the disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic to our employees who provide patient care in our hospitals and emergency departments, [Northwestern] will initiate a special compensation program, retroactive to April 5, 2020, through the lifting of the Illinois stay-at-home order or such other time as [Northwestern] determines it is no longer required,” Dean Harrison wrote April 17.

But on Thursday, a day before employees were set to receive their first paychecks with the extra cash, some received another email from an administrator explaining that they were now deemed ineligible for the program. Employees who mostly deal with inpatients still qualify for the bonuses, though workers “that spend the majority of their time with patients coming in for outpatient procedures are not eligible,” according to the email obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

While those employees would still receive a bump in pay Friday, the email made it clear that the money would eventually be clawed back by their employer.

An employee at a suburban hospital, who asked to remain anonymous fearing she may be fired for speaking out, said she and her co-workers believe they’re set to receive an extra $5 an hour in their paychecks on Friday. Nevertheless, the money will now be taken out of her next check on May 22.

“It’s like giving a kid a piece of candy, and just as they start to put it in their mouth, you’re just ripping it out of their hands,” said the worker. “It is very cruel. It’s unbelievable.”

She was among the employees caught off guard by Thursday’s email from Sara Williamson, Northwestern’s director of access, who wrote that hospital officials “have come to understand that a smaller population of our team qualifies than what we originally thought.”

“I feel very strongly that this does not reflect your work efforts during this time, your contributions to the organization or my appreciation of your work,” she wrote. “Rather, this is something we need to do to ensure we are applying these pay practices in an equitable way across the organization.”

“There is extraordinary work going on that we may not be recognizing in a monetary way, but a lot of thought continues to go on about how we can continue to recognize all of [the] work and efforts during this time.”

Chris King, a spokesman for Northwestern, blamed payroll errors caused by “the expedited implementation process and interpretations of the qualification guidelines.”

“As always, we will follow up directly with the employees impacted,” King said. “We are proud of the exceptional work happening every day across our health system to care for patients during this global pandemic.

Meanwhile, the suburban hospital employee was still seething.

“You should just be ashamed of yourselves to do something like that,” she said of her bosses.