By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)– A week after it was revealed upper management and executives at Denver Health Medical Center received incentive bonuses during the coronavirus pandemic, nurses and front line workers are still raw, angry and lashing out at hospital CEO Robin Wittenstein.

Robin Wittenstein (credit: CBS)

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One nurse told Wittenstein this week, “I don’t have trust or faith in executive leadership because of this.” Another told her, ”Your incentives and bonuses… those were given to you based on goals met by us.”

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The bitter comments came this week as Wittenstein met with some of the hospital’s 7,000 employees to try to explain her perspective on the incentive bonuses. CBS4 was able to listen to several of those meetings.

But even as Wittenstein conceded, ”In terms of the timing, it was terrible,” nurses and other front line workers did not seem placated by the CEO’s explanations.

“We are the ones doing the work,” one employee told Wittenstein, “I’m wondering how you guys settle that with these massive bonuses when we are wearing one mask a day?”

A CBS4 Investigation last week revealed that in early April, workers at the safety-net hospital were told to start taking leave without pay, cut their work hours, or use personal time off to help save the hospital money during the financial downturn caused by the pandemic. But one week later, about 140 executives and upper level managers received incentive bonuses for their work in 2019.

For some, those bonuses amounted to $50,000 to $100,000 while others saw their bonuses equate to nearly 20% of their annual pay. Wittenstein received a $230,275 bonus for her 2019 work in addition to her annual salary of $967,155.

Critical workers at the hospital were livid to learn that while they were risking their lives and being asked to take pay cuts, executives were banking sizeable bonuses.

(credit: CBS)

Wittenstein explained that even with the incentive bonuses, hospital executives were still only making average salaries compared to counterparts at other hospitals.

“We want to try to pay people fairly,” said Wittenstein, “but those incentives are what keeps people at the midpoint of the compensation range.”

But those explanations did not satisfy employees who lashed out at Wittenstein this week, believing it was their work that led to the bonuses.

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After the CBS4 Investigation, the hospital CEO said the bonuses should not have been put into bank accounts during a pandemic, when front line workers were being told tighten their belts.

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”If I could undo that I would,” Wittenstein told employees during a Thursday meeting, ”The timing was awful.”

She announced earlier that she is waiving accrual of personal time off and using personal time off during each pay period for the next three months, saying that would add up to a 30% savings for the hospital. She also pledged $100,000 to the Denver Health Foundation several months ago. Additionally she said her executive staff is giving the hospital the equivalent of about $1,000,000 in savings via furlough days, donations and sacrificing personal time off.

(credit: CBS)

During a meeting with employees earlier this week, an intensive care nurse told Wittenstein, “We are terrified. I’m scared to go to work. I can’t see my family. I haven’t seen them for two months. We are scared and this is what this is all coming from. We don’t know what we’re dealing with and you don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

Nurses complained that while executives were taking bonuses, they were short staffed, lacked personal protective equipment and were not receiving hazard pay for dealing with COVID-19 patients.

Wittenstein told one employee group, ”I’m sorry that the payment of salary dollars that the executives had at risk have eroded the trust and faith of people who have worked here for decades.”

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But as she called the timing of the bonuses a “mistake” she also blamed news accounts for fanning the flames.

”The media prints and says what the media wants to print and say,” Wittenstein told one employee group.

Although Wittenstein and hospital executives have repeatedly said the Management Incentive Plan(MIP) payouts were not bonuses, in a March 23 email to executives, notifying them of the upcoming payouts, Wittenstein continually referred to the payments as an “incentive bonus” based on individual objectives and organizational performance.

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Noting the anger of employees over the bonuses, Wittenstein told one group on Friday, “We obviously have a lot of work to do.”

Brian Maass