By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4) – Denver Health Medical Center CEO Robin Wittenstein on Monday apologized to the hospital’s 7,000 employees for the timing of incentive bonuses that were handed out to executives and managers April 10, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The bonuses came a week after Wittenstein asked front-line staff to cut hours and pay and live on less.

“Being informed of incentive payments now to the executive staff, no matter what the explanation,” wrote Wittenstein, “has clearly been painful and dividing, especially because you did not hear about this from me directly first. For this, I am deeply sorry.”

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Wittenstein’s email was sent to hospital staff Monday afternoon.

(credit: CBS)

That follows a CBS4 investigation aired last Thursday that revealed Wittenstein asked hospital staff on April 3 to reduce hours, take leave without pay or use up their personal time off as a way of helping the hospital through the financial woes brought about by COVID-19.

One week later, on April 10, about 150 hospital executives and managers received Management Incentive Plan bonuses for their work in 2019. Some of those payments ranged from $50,000 up to $230,000.

CBS4 obtained salary and bonus information for a dozen of the executives whose bonus payments mostly ranged between 17% to 20% of their annual salary, which in many cases was between $200,000 to $500,000.

Hospital workers who lost pay and hours and were scraping to get by expressed anger, sadness and frustration at the payments. Some started an online petition asking that executives return their bonuses. By Monday afternoon, 3,450 people had signed the petition with many of them identifying themselves as Denver Health Medical Center workers.

Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds on Friday asked the bonuses be returned and be used to benefit front-line hospital workers who are risking their lives each day.

“I’m really frustrated that we have public health administrators that are taking tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars of bonuses for executives while working families are sacrificing themselves,” said Hinds.

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Wittenstein’s Monday email acknowledged the timing of the incentive payments “has caused you hurt and anger.”  She explained the payments were “not a bonus in the common understanding of the term” and said the payments to executives were not made in two of the last four years.

Hospital administrators say when the bonuses are awarded, they put DHMC executives and administrators at about the 50th percentile of what similarly situated executives are paid in Colorado and across the country. In years when the bonuses are not awarded, Wittenstein said hospital executives are paid less than their counterparts at other institutions.

(credit: CBS)

Wittenstein reiterated Monday what she had said last week to CBS4, that she was using personal time off in each pay period for three months and was waiving accrual of additional personal time off equating to a 30% salary reduction. She also pledged $100,000 to the Denver Health Foundation several months ago to help employees.

Documents show Wittenstein received a bonus of $230,000 this month added onto her salary of $967,000.  Wittenstein also said her executive staff was reducing hours and pay by 12%, contributing over $550,000 in salary back to the hospital and donating $386,000 to the Denver Health Foundation for an employee relief fund.

“I know these answers will not heal all the raw emotion and wounds that were created,” she said. “It is deeply hurtful to me to think that we have, at this critical moment, experienced such a situation. Again, I am truly sorry for the anger, frustration and pain it caused each of you and hope you accept my apology.”

Anne Warhover, Board Chair for the Denver Health and Hospital Authority, also issued an email to employees Monday afternoon writing, “All of us on the board regret that the timing of the 2019 incentive payments has created anger and resentment, and we understand how troubling news of these payments can be at such a time as this.”

Warhover said the board stands behind the leadership compensation structure.

Although hospital administrators bristled at calling the payments “bonuses,” in a March 23 email from Wittenstein to hospital executives, she referred to the payments four times as an “incentive bonus.”

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At the end of 2018, the hospital said it had a $4.1 million management incentive plan payout liability.

Brian Maass