Updated 02/11/11 – 5:06 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — While Cook County officials have been working to close a $487 million budget deficit, union employees at its health and hospital system are being paid $250 bonuses for coming into work during last week’s blizzard.
Cook County Health and Hospital System spokesman Lucio Guerrero confirmed that officials decided to pay the bonus to union doctors and nurses who showed up to work during the blizzard on Feb. 2.
“This is something we had to do,” Guerrero said. “People couldn’t get to work. They wouldn’t have come to work. I was picking up nurses in my vehicle.”
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As CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez reports, employees were told about the bonuses before the blizzard, but only about 25% of union nurses and doctors showed up for work on the day of the storm.
Guerrero also confirmed that health system managers and other non-union employees were given comp time for showing up during the blizzard. He said that is common practice in the health care industry.
But Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-10th) said she wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t think that that’s a commonplace occurrence,” Gainer said.
Representatives of three other Chicago hospitals — Rush University Medical Center, the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital — said they didn’t give out bonuses to employees who came to work during the blizzard.
Officials at Northwestern said they encouraged employees to pack a bag to bring to work before the blizzard hit in case they needed to stay at the hospital.
Rush and UIC officials said they offered employees a place to sleep and provided meals so that employees did not have to venture out into the blizzard.
Gainer said she has no problem giving the union workers at the county’s hospitals and health clinics a bonus for coming in during the blizzard, but she said it’s not appropriate to give management comp time for showing up to work on a scheduled day.
“This is a time when the county is really facing a lot of cuts and people are losing their jobs and we need to be mindful of that,” she said.
John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said “Every one of those $250 bonuses, each of those dollars came out of the pocket of somebody who went to work that day to make money to pay taxes to give money to somebody who should have gone to work and not have to be paid an incentive to do it,”
No one disputes that it took extra effort to get to work the day the blizzard struck. But was it worth a $250 bonus?
“It’s a terrible use of taxpayer dollars especially when you have 750,000 people out of work in the state of Illinois,” Tillman said. “They would die to have those jobs and get over there for regular pay, let alone bonus pay.”
All over the city, firemen, police officers, hotel doormen, and cabdrivers showed up for work, like any other day.
One cab driver said “That’s not fair to me because I get no bonus if I work that very day.”
One hotel worker said his bosses didn’t give out bonuses to people who showed up to work during the blizzard.
“No, my bonus was being here in the hotel for three days in a row because I couldn’t get out,” he said.
But even one of his colleagues who also braved the elements for no extra pay said that a bonus is just a nice thing to do.
“I think that’s good because they made an effort. That’s really good.”
Guerrero defended the decision to hand out the bonuses and comp time, despite the county’s budget problems.
“We wanted to recognize our nurses and this is a way that we thought we could do that with money already budgeted for purposes such like this,” Guerrero said.
He said the money came out of the overtime budget, at a time when the hospital is doing well financially.
“I would say taxpayers should be happy we were able to bring back $95 million last year in the budget,” Guerrero said. “The CEO of our Board, Bill Foley, made the call.”
Cook County’s health system is overseen by an independent board, headed by Chief Executive Officer William Foley.
Earlier this year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle demanded 16 percent budget cuts from all county departments. A number of departments, including the Cook County Sheriff’s office, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the Cook County Public Defender’s office said those cuts would have been too deep. The sheriff’s office agreed to cut 12 percent. The state’s attorney’s office and public defender’s office agreed to 10 percent cuts.
CBS 2 Political Producer Ed Marshall contributed to this report.