ALBANY — Albany Medical Center will pay $90,000 in restitution to seven foreign nurses it was accused of illegally fining for quitting their jobs.
The move settles an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office, which said the hospital forced the nurses it recruited overseas to pay up to $20,000 upon quitting (or being fired with cause) within three years of being hired.
The repayment fee in foreign nurses’ employment contracts as far back as 2011 was illegal, state Attorney General Letitia James said in a prepared statement Thursday.
The settlement signed last week by her office and Albany Med stipulates that Albany Med disputes the findings of the AG’s Office.
Albany Med made the same point in a prepared statement of its own Thursday:
“It was not worth our time, effort or expense to fight these politically motivated allegations, and the settlement agreement we entered into specifically states that we did not admit to any violation of the law.”
The reference to political motivations apparently involves Albany Med’s long-running contract negotiations and often-tense relations with the New York State Nurses Association, the union that represents the hospital’s nurses.
NYSNA filed a civil lawsuit over the repayment fees in 2019 but it was dismissed; it took the matter to the state AG’s Office, which issued a subpoena in the matter February 2020.
Ultimately, the AG’s office determined Albany Med violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act through the contract provision. It said the provision constituted a threat of sufficiently serious legal and financial harm “to compel a reasonable person of the same background and in the same circumstances to perform or to continue performing labor or services in order to avoid incurring that harm.”
The AG’s Office said its investigation found that the contract provision affected hundreds of nurses in the past decade and was enforced against the seven nurses who had quit their jobs, most of them natives of the Philippines; it said Albany Med threatened to take legal action against the nurses and involve immigration authorities if they did not pay the fees.
James’ news release Thursday included a statement from NYSNA Executive Director Pat Kane:
“After years of fighting on behalf of our immigrant members at AMC, NYSNA is pleased to see this result from Attorney General Letitia James’ Office. We continue to be proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the brave Filipino nurses that sounded the alarm on these coercive employment contracts.”
Foreign nurses have been recruited to work in the United States for decades; hospitals themselves and an array of recruiting firms carry out the work, and the Philippines more than anywhere else has provided a steady stream of nurses coming to the United States.
Albany Med ICU nurse Jennifer Bejo became one of them in 2006, leaving her homeland in hopes of earning enough to provide a better life for her family.
That goal was met: She was able to bring her husband and son to join her and still sends money home to her mother.
“Our salary is 15 times bigger than working in a local hospital in the Philippines,” she said.
Albany Med provided English proficiency classes and help obtaining a green card, and she’s worked there ever since — she is not unhappy at Albany Med, but she objected to its contract provision, even though she never felt the weight of it.
“It’s not about being unhappy, it’s all about you’re being held by a contract — it holds you to stay,” said Bejo, who is a member of the NYSNA contract negotiating committee. “It kind of makes you feel like, OK, there’s nowhere to go.”
She has spoken on behalf of the seven nurses at the heart of the investigation, as they opted to remain anonymous to avoid being criticized or ostracized.
Bejo was happy for them Thursday, and happy about the larger picture.
“This is not just for Filipino nurses alone, this is for everybody,” she said. “Our goal right now is to have that contract that guarantees a fair distribution of wages.”
The resolution agreed on by the AG’s office calls for Albany Med to:
- Repay the seven nurses $82,000 plus $8,229 interest;
- Remove the repayment provision from all current and future employment contracts;
- Notify all current and former nurses subject to that provision that it has been removed;
- Certify that it has collected the repayment fee from no nurses other than the seven in question.
This last stipulation has been fulfilled, and Albany Med’s affidavit to that effect provides details on the seven nurses who were dinged: They were penalized $2,000 to $20,000 from October 2014 to December 2020 for leaving Albany Med anywhere from two to 27 months short of their 36-month commitment.
In its statement, Albany Med said it does not believe it did anything wrong.
“We value all of our nurses and are proud of our efforts to recruit and support nurses from the Philippines who are eager to train and provide care as part of our Albany Med team,” it said.