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WRHA seeks to recoup $1.2M in overpayments

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is currently out $1.2 million after it discovered multiple snafus that overpaid 1,200 employees over four years, the Free Press has learned.

Recouping the money isn’t going to be easy, either. The WRHA is already facing grievance complaints from two unions after it asked employees to pay the money back.

The December issue of Manitoba Association of Healthcare Professionals included an article about the workers' rights in the event of overpayment.</p>

The December issue of Manitoba Association of Healthcare Professionals included an article about the workers' rights in the event of overpayment.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Winnipeg Regional Heath Authority says the overpayment issue stems from the introduction of a new payroll system in 2012. </p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Winnipeg Regional Heath Authority says the overpayment issue stems from the introduction of a new payroll system in 2012.

Officials with the WRHA say the discovery of overpayments stems from when it began using a new payroll system in 2012.

By 2015, all 28,000 of its employees from various hospitals and health centres were using the system.

The centralization led to the discovery of $1.2 million in overpayments to employees, said Bronwyn Penner-Holigroski, a spokeswoman for the WRHA.

She blames the overpayments on the size of the WRHA and said when it integrated its payroll into a centralized system, it allowed it to better detect payroll errors.

"Overpayments are a problem for every large organization," she said. "It is not like all of a sudden we turned over a rock and found this stuff, it is that now everyone is on the same system, and we are making a concentrated effort to follow up on this across the board."

However, officials with the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union say otherwise and blame the rollout of the new payroll system.

Michelle Gawronsky, the president of the MGEU, said they raised several red flags with the WRHA over its new payroll system’s ability to adapt to such a large and complex organization, "to no avail."

"Since this program came online, there have been many instances of payment errors which have, in our view, demonstrated the program’s inability to meet the demands of the WRHA," she said in a prepared statement.

The WRHA decided to do something about the multiple overpayments and hired an overpayment investigator last winter. By April 2016, it began mailing letters to employees it overpaid because of data-entry errors or timekeeping errors and a host of other reasons, Penner-Holigroski said.

The letters sent by the WRHA requested employees sign an agreement to pay back the money through a payment plan or contact human resources within two weeks of receiving the initial letter.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals and MGEU both say some of the overpayments occurred as far back as 2012 and asking for a repayment goes against their collective agreement with the WRHA. Both have filed grievances.

The health-care professionals’ association outlined to its members in a newsletter in December that it had filed two grievances in the fall of 2016 over the 300 letters the WRHA had recently sent its members. It points to a provision in their collective bargaining that prohibits collecting money for overpayment if the overpayment is discovered more than a year after it occurred. The MGEU has the same provision.

A spokeswoman with the association said discussions are ongoing with the WRHA over the matter and was unable to offer any more details about the grievances filed.

The association represents about 1,200 employees who work in the health-care field. Roughly 4,100 of MGEU members work for the WRHA in various fields including home care and security patrol officers.

Penner-Holigroski said the overpayments could have happened to any employee, in any sector of the WRHA. The WRHA has not found a pattern in those who have been affected, she said.

It is rare for the WRHA to take legal action, but it is on the table, she added.

"It remains an option for the WRHA to fulfil our obligation as a publicly funded entity to recover the funds that were overpaid in error," she said.

"It is the obligation of the WRHA, as a publicly funded organization to try to recover overpayments. These are funds our employees have received above and beyond their agreed-upon wages."

Bruce Curran, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law who specializes in labour issues, said it is not uncommon for large organizations to accidentally overpay their employees. However, he noted that the provisions in the unions’ collective bargaining agreement may pose a problem for the WRHA.

"The employer has a right to request money that is an overpayment," he said. "But based on what we know (from the provision), if the employer tries to go back further than a year, it will likely go to an arbitrator, and likely based on this provision they would be prevented from collecting anything from beyond a year of when the error was discovered."

Penner-Holigroski said the "majority" of overpaid employees were not overpaid more than $1,000 in excess of their normal salary. Letters were also sent to former employees no longer working with the WRHA.

She said they are working closely with all affected unions to address the issue of overpayments and they "continue to work through concerns addressed by both sides."

kristin.annable@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @kristinannable

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