Local nurses and emergency staff are taking home less pay than health care workers contracted from the mainland, a pay imbalance that quickly drew the ire of V.I. lawmakers Tuesday.
Meeting in a Committee of the Whole hearing, senators questioned why workers from Pafford Medical Services, an Arkansas-based company contracted to the V.I. Health Department to augment its pandemic response, were receiving higher compensation than their local counterparts.
Pafford, which had previously worked in the territory after hurricanes Irma and Maria, is now reportedly poised to get a $15 million, yearlong contract with the Health Department, in which the company will provide roughly 50 workers to hospitals, nursing homes and the dialysis center.
“This is how we give locals indigestion,” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw. “We need to do our best to make them whole.”
Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. agreed, stating more needs to be done to value local workers and companies who are capable of doing the jobs contracted out to non-local companies.
“We got to step up as a government and be able to protect our own — it’s unfair,” he said.
V.I. Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said she only recently learned of the pay imbalance involving Pafford and insisted she will meet with both hospitals and the Office of Collective Bargaining to ensure local workers receive their proper compensation.
While acknowledging that the Pafford contract was “extremely expensive,” Encarnacion said the amount includes a number of items beyond salaries and was simply a reality of the territory’s state of emergency.
“We brought Pafford in because of an emergency,” she said. “In every state of emergency, when you bring staff in, you’re actually paying a little bit more that you want to — you sometimes have no choice. It’s not that we don’t have qualified [staff]. We just don’t have the numbers that we need sometimes, especially if a surge occurs.”
She added that the Pafford contract includes travel, housing and overtime pay.
“[Pafford workers] work a lot of overtime as well and sometimes seven days of week if needed because they’re deployed to help us in the state of emergency,” she said.
According to Health Department spokesperson Jahnesta Ritter, the department is still in the process of negotiating terms of the contract with Pafford.
The department is also seeking funding assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.