MUHC says clinical operations at risk if it's made to cut pay of key IT support staff

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The McGill University Health Centre says if the MUHC is compelled to adopt the auditor general's recommendations about the hiring and salaries paid to its IT support staff, it could "jeopardize the clinical operations of the hospital."

In a report released earlier this month, Quebec Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc questioned the fact that IT workers recently transferred from a non-profit corporation, Syscor, to the MUHC are earning more than unionized employees doing similar work.

"Although this is legally possible, these disparities raise questions as to their acceptability,"  Leclerc wrote in her report, recommending the MUHC rectify the situation.

However, a spokesperson for the MUHC told CBC adopting Leclerc's recommendation would likely mean the loss of dozens of experienced IT support workers vital to the hospital network's operations.

And, in a rare case of solidarity, the labour federation representing many of the hospital network's unionized workers is siding with the MUHC.

Syscor allowed MUHC to get around union rules: AG

The history of Syscor dates back to 1982, when the MUHC set it up as a separate, non-profit company to manage and support IT for all its hospitals and clinics.

According the auditor general's report, creating Syscor as a separate entity gave the company more flexibility to recruit IT workers, as it was not subject to collective agreements.  Syscor could pay IT workers higher salaries than the MUHC was paying unionized employees.

In 2015, the Health Ministry reviewed the MUHC's relationship with Syscor and asked the hospital network to end the arrangement.

The MUHC then proceeded to hire 58 Syscor employees to essentially continue doing the same IT support work they had already been doing for the hospital network for years.

It was this transfer of Syscor employees to the MUHC that caught the attention of the auditor general.

Hiring 'irregularities' unfair: report

Leclerc studied in detail the case of 15 of the 58 former Syscor employees hired by the MUHC in 2016.  She found irregularities in the hiring process.  

Normally, when the MUHC is hiring, it has to post the positions, do interviews and verify the qualifications of potential new employees.

In the case of the former Syscor employees, none of this happened.  They were essentially transferred directly from the Syscor to the MUHC.

Leclerc also found the ex-Syscor employees were allowed to keep their old salaries, meaning they are being paid more than MUHC employees doing equivalent work.

Leclerc estimates the 15 employees whose cases she examined are paid a combined total of $349,000 more per year than they would have been if they were paid at the salary scales spelled out in the MUHC's collective agreement.

"This raises questions as to the acceptability and fairness of the way the MUHC operates," Leclerc wrote in her report.

Salary cuts could trigger loss of critical staff: MUHC

Richard Fahey, the MUHC's director of human resources, legal affairs and communications, told CBC that the health network "fundamentally disagrees" with the auditor general's conclusions.

"We integrated those employees. We had to respect their contract of employment with Syscor, and because of that, we had to maintain their compensation," Fahey said.

Following the auditor general's recommendation would mean experienced former Syscor workers would see their salaries cut. 

Many would likely quit, Fahey said.

"We would lose experienced staff — people that have been doing this job for many years, who know our system — and that would jeopardize the clinical operations of the hospital," he said.

Union sides with MUHC

The CSN, the labour federation which represents about half of the MUHC's unionized employees, agrees with management's position.

"The auditor general's recommendations don't take into account the expertise that's necessary for the security of a health care facility," Manuel Fernandes, interim president of the CSN-affiliated MUHC employees union, told CBC.

"There's a risk that a lot of the Syscor employees would have gone into the private sector, where there's a higher pay scale."

Future of other employees up in the air

Now the MUHC is faced with an immediate problem.  

Not all the former Syscor employees have been transferred to the MUHC yet.

After the first wave of 58 were hired in 2016, a second wave of about 60 employees is supposed to be transferred this spring.

The auditor general's concern appears to have put that process on hold.​

Catherine Poulin, media attaché for Treasury Board President Pierre Moreau, told the CBC in an emailed statement that the MUHC's hiring process for Syscor employees was "unacceptable, contrary to the collective agreement and contrary to the applicable regulations".

She said Moreau has asked the MUHC to "correct the situation," but it's not clear what that means.

"We are in discussions with the ministry to find a way that would be acceptable to all parties," Fahey said.

That process could take weeks or even months, Fahey said, but he said he hopes it will be resolved before this summer.