Hartford HealthCare made a big promise back in 2019.
Officials at the multi-billion dollar company said every employee would begin making at least $15 an hour starting in March 2019.
In a letter to staff announcing the raises, Chief Executive Elliot Joseph wrote, “I hope that all staff members share my pride in being part of an organization that always strives to live its values.”
The announcement generated a lot of fanfare from state politicians and a swell of news coverage.
Home health aides at Hartford HealthCare like Wayne who were making just $11.60 an hour welcomed the announcement. But he was skeptical. Wayne had spent the last year complaining to his bosses that $17.50 a day was being taken out of his paycheck for meals he was never offered or provided.
”I knew from the first paycheck that something wasn’t right. But when I called the office, they keep telling me everything is fine with my paycheck,” Wayne said. “I keep pushing and pushing and pushing. I keep getting the runaround all the time.”
Data shows low-wage home health aide jobs are disproportionately filled with immigrants and people of color like Wayne. He is here on a work visa from Jamaica, which is why Connecticut Public is not using his real name.
“They did it to all the persons who they could take advantage of. It’s segregations and separations. It’s not fair,” he said.
Wayne contemplated quitting. But he had grown close with the family he was helping.
”I become a family with them. I got attached with my client,” he said. “Some things in life, it’s not about money.”
But he didn’t tell this new family about the money being docked from his paycheck.
His client was a world traveler and avid bicyclist trying to recover from strokes that left him paralyzed and immobile. After each stroke, his client struggled to cope with whether life was worth living. Wayne didn’t want to burden him and his wife with what felt like a trivial issue compared to what they were facing. Instead, Wayne wanted to bring nothing but positive vibes into the home of Frank Lord and Suzanne Hopgood.
Hopgood said he immediately brought so much happiness into their home.
”Frank just adored him. He changed dramatically over the first couple of months Wayne was here. It was just remarkable.”
It was lively, too.
“It was just hilarious. Frank said one day, ‘He knows. He’s already laughed at the joke I haven’t told yet.’ which was a perfect description,” she said from her downtown Hartford condo. “I would hear the two of them laugh and laugh and laugh.”
And most importantly, she said, Wayne is a decent man.
“He had a sense of dignity. He was the one that Frank had told that he had enough that he was he was done. I can’t think of a better tribute to someone than wanting him with him to take him through the process of dying.”
Wayne quit working for Hartford HealthCare shortly after Frank died, though he stayed in touch with Hopgood. Months later, she told Wayne she was considering donating money to Hartford HealthCare to help workers like him.
”I asked what would have made a difference to them? What would have made their job easier? And that’s when Wayne said, ‘Well, you know, they were taking money out of my paycheck for meals?”
It surprised her.
She kept the contract she had with Hartford HealthCare, and it explicitly states that she must provide Wayne with three meals a day or face a steep daily fine. She never considered not feeding Wayne, though it was expensive because, “I’m the takeout queen.”
And then Frank showed her his paystub.
Turns out they also were not paying him the $15 an hour that they promised to begin a year and a half earlier. Instead, he was making $11.60. That’s just 60 cents more than minimum wage at the time. Paystubs, contracts, and other records reviewed by CT Public show that Wayne was making $193 a day to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to care for Frank. Suzanne and her insurance were paying Hartford HealthCare $260 a day.
The job took a toll on Wayne.
“You give up your entire day. I think you should be treated way better. You have a life, you have your mental health, you have all those things and you give it up to take care of a person in need,” Wayne said.
These jobs often don’t come with benefits, either. Wayne was also not provided any paid vacation time and he and his family went without insurance because he said he couldn’t afford it.
Suzanne knew she had to do something about the thousands of dollars taken from Wayne’s checks for meals — and presumably others.
“This doesn’t make any sense to me. I run corporations. I know labor laws,” Hopgood said.
She also knows several board members at Hartford HealthCare and they put her in touch with the organization’s attorney. Email records show General Counsel David Mack said the deduction was legal, though he promised Hartford HealthCare would stop the practice. He did not commit to paying back the thousands of dollars taken from workers’ checks for meals that were never offered or provided.
A widespread practice
Hopgood went to the Connecticut Department of Labor to share her frustration and lobby them to try and change the law. Instead, they had her file a complaint so they could open an investigation into this practice at Hartford HealthCare.
That audit resulted in the labor department finding Hartford HealthCare was inappropriately charging for meals. During the 22 months that were audited, Hartford HealthCare took $479,000 for meals from 114 workers.
“I was shocked when I found out that I was right from the beginning that something was not right. They were stealing money from us all along,” Wayne said.
Wayne got a check for just over $2,000. That’s far short of what was taken from his checks during the three years he worked for Hartford HealthCare.
”I know what they gave me was not the correct number. But it’s over now, so I just moved on from it,” Wayne said.
State law only allows the Department of Labor to look back and recoup stolen wages for two years from the date a complaint is made. The law also allows the labor department to negotiate certain conditions of a settlement with the company found in violation.
A copy of the settlement with Hartford HealthCare shows the company agreed to pay back workers for the meals they were charged during a 22 month window. And to get the case wrapped up quickly, the department waived Hartford HealthCare paying workers huge interest payments on the money they withheld. The civil penalty was cut in half.
Tom Wydra, director of the wage and workplace standards division at the Connecticut Department of Labor, said because the company accepted responsibility, it saved the state from having to do their own audit and seek legal remedies to recoup the wages.
“We immediately reached out to Hartford Healthcare and expressed our concerns,” Wydra said. “We began the process of working with Hartford HealthCare. It involves identifying all the deductions during that period for those employees that were not permissible. We enforce the law to every extent we can and for this case we went back as far as we could.”
Hartford HealthCare declined over the last month to make someone available for an interview. In an email, a spokesperson pointed out that state law allows employers to charge workers for meals. That law, however, requires the meal to actually be provided and for the labor department and each employee to agree to the charge.
The spokesperson said Hartford HealthCare “disputed any allegation of wrongdoing”, and said the organization decided “to go above and beyond” by reimbursing the workers with some of the wages deducted.
On promises to pay its workers $15 an hour, the spokesperson said that these workers were making at least that when overtime was factored in.
Hopgood called that “some funny math” and said Hartford Healthcare should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour like was promised and reimburse staff for all the money that was taken for meals since the practice began in 2014.
But she doesn’t think that will happen.
“It seems to me it’s been a consistent process of having to question what’s the right thing to do here? And are people doing the right thing?” Hopgood said. “There’s a culture problem here. What was it in a culture of people who knew there was something wrong, that nobody said something? Why didn’t someone say something about a community, a class of people without a voice being cheated?”
This growth industry is ‘Wild, Wild West’
Issues surrounding home-health aides being taken advantage of may not dissipate anytime soon.
Nationally, there has been rapid growth in the number of home and personal care aides like Wayne that help the disabled or elderly. In Connecticut, these low-wage jobs have surged faster than in 43 other states, an analysis by Connecticut Public of labor data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.
A decade ago, these workers accounted for one out of every 77 employees in the state’s economy. Now, they account for one out of every 41 workers.
This surge is expected to continue through at least the next decade as Medicaid coverage expands, baby boomers grow old, and fewer people move into nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Home care work is expected to add more jobs than nearly every other industry in the coming years.
“Homecare is a lot like the Wild Wild West in terms of lack of regulations and rules protecting workers rights,” said Diedre Murch, a vice president of one of the largest health care unions in the state, 1199 SEIU. “These are some of the folks with the most challenges and fewest rights.”
Murch said the live-in caregivers that they have helped unionize have seen their wages rise, benefits increase, and workplace standards improve.
“We have made some significant advancements for living caregivers and our union we know there’s still a long way to go though before they have the protections, the wages and the benefits that of course we believe any working person anyone should have access to. But compared to those who are not in a union we’ve made some significant progress,” Murch said.
No longer an employee at Hartford Healthcare, Wayne hopes the company learned its lesson.
“I hope this sent a signal for them not to do it anymore, or thinking of trying and find different ways to do stuff like this. A company should invest in their workers, not take from their workers.”
This story was originally published Aug. 17, 2022, by Connecticut Public.