LEWISTON — Covenant Health, the Massachusetts-based parent of St. Mary’s Health System, continued to hire people even as it prepared to lay them off and outsource their jobs.

A spokeswoman for Covenant said three to five people were in the hiring process in Lewiston — and two were actually hired — when Covenant finalized its plans to drop 78 Lewiston positions and for Ohio-based Ensemble Health Partners to take over another 89 Lewiston jobs in coding, billing and payment processing.

However, employees in Lewiston say they know a number of people who were recently hired and now will lose their jobs with St. Mary’s, including one person who had quit another job to start at St. Mary’s just two days before layoffs were announced and another person who was scheduled to start the week after.

“Why would you put people in that predicament?” said one employee who asked to remain anonymous because she feared speaking publicly would hurt her chances of finding another job in the area.

Five employees, who hold a variety of positions and have different lengths of tenure with St. Mary’s, spoke to the Sun Journal on the condition of anonymity, fearing that Covenant would take away or reduce promised severance pay for speaking publicly or that Ensemble or other employers would not hire them.

All five said St. Mary’s President Steven Jorgensen told workers at a meeting last week that Covenant made its plans with Ensemble two months ago.

Covenant spokeswoman Karen Sullivan refuted that. She said she asked Jorgensen about his comment after a query from the Sun Journal and Jorgensen denied saying it. Sullivan said Covenant signed an agreement with Ensemble at the beginning of July and told employees a few weeks later.

“We needed to work with (Ensemble) in terms of some of the final details,” Sullivan said. “As soon as we could we told employees what was going on.”

Covenant oversees three hospitals: St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor and St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Covenant’s plan, announced July 31, affects about 360 employees within its system, including workers in Lewiston, Bangor and Nashua. Of those, 200 have been assigned to jobs with Ensemble, Covenant officials said. The remaining 160 can apply for jobs with Ensemble, apply for jobs with Covenant or leave and take a severance package.

Covenant officials have said 167 Lewiston employees will be affected, with 89 placed at Ensemble and 78 left to apply to Ensemble, St. Mary’s or elsewhere.

St. Mary’s employees dispute those numbers, saying there are fewer guaranteed Ensemble positions than Covenant officials have touted publicly.

“There’s 78 of us in just our building and none of us are guaranteed a job,” one employee said.

Employees also said that the Ensemble jobs that do exist require either relocation out of state or working from home, and working from home has specific requirements not everyone can meet.

“You can’t have children under the age of 12,” one employee said. “You have to have internet service. The people who live out further who don’t have internet service won’t be able to apply for them. You have to have a dedicated room with a lock on the door.”

Employees and Covenant officials also disagree about severance information. Employees said they’ve been told that anyone there for less than a year won’t be paid severance. Sullivan said they will.

“I don’t have specific details about it, but what I can tell you is that everybody who’s impacted is going to be eligible for severance,” Sullivan said.

For workers hired recently, the situation has an extra level of frustration. Employees all said they know people who recently quit jobs to work for St. Mary’s and can’t go back because their old position was filled, or they turned down other job opportunities to go to work for the Catholic hospital system. They said a number of people were hired in the past two months — the time period they said Jorgensen gave for the Ensemble deal — and at least one was hired so recently that the layoff announcement came two days after she started.

“They hired (people) under false pretenses,” one employee said.

Sullivan acknowledged that Covenant was in the process of hiring “a very small number of people” as it finalized its deal with Ensemble. She said Covenant had to hire for certain jobs because Ensemble won’t take over coding, billing and payment processing until the beginning of October.

“Through all of that time frame we still have to do the work, so we filled the critical positions to get that done,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor said there are no laws enforced by her department that prohibit employers from hiring while also planning to lay off those positions.

Sullivan said the shift to Ensemble was necessary and will improve billing and coding and help with Epic, Covenant’s new multimillion-dollar electronic medical records system.

“Our employees are our heart and soul and we are doing everything we possibly can. We’re providing an extended transition period. We are very hopeful we’ll be able to retain as many employees as possible, either on the Ensemble side or at St. Mary’s. And for those that choose to move on, we’re providing outplacement services,” Sullivan said. “We need to strike that balance of taking care of our employees and taking care of our patients.”

According to the Boston Business Journal, Covenant reported a nearly $61 million operating loss last year and has seen drops in its bond ratings. Covenant’s new CEO, Stephen Grubbs, told the Boston Business Journal that he blamed the loss on a 30 percent decrease in productivity associated with Epic. He said physician turnover contributed to the problem.

Employees disagree that Ensemble will fix the billing and coding problems that have plagued the system. They predict Covenant will eventually return those jobs in-house.

In the meantime, they said, employees are scrambling to find new jobs. Some are adamant that they won’t try to stay with St. Mary’s.

“My trust is broken,” one employee said.

The Maine Department of Labor is responding to the Covenant layoffs with Rapid Response services starting on site in Bangor this week and in Lewiston at the end of August.


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