New Jersey Made Questionable Payments to Veterans Agency Officials

The state of New Jersey tapped a fund meant for nurses and others working directly with patients to make unauthorized and questionable payments to upper-level managers at its veterans agency, which oversees the nursing homes with the state’s highest death count for Covid-19.

Among the recipients is

Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles,

the former chief executive of the agency’s Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, in Edison, N.J., who received $13,392 in hazard pay to which she wasn’t entitled before being fired by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Wall Street Journal review of state payroll records found.

Her top deputy and successor after her termination,

Scott Mueller,

also got $14,290 from the pool, which was funded by the first federal stimulus bill last year, the records show.

State officials began examining the payments after receiving questions about them from the Journal and confirmed that Ms. Schiff-Heedles and Mr. Mueller shouldn’t have received them.

The state’s Civil Service Commission “did not approve payments for Ms. Schiff-Heedles and Mr. Mueller. They do not qualify for the special project rate” due to their salary levels, said Tyler Jones, a spokeswoman for the commission, referring to the hazard pay.

The agency also paid as much as about $14,000 each to certain midlevel managers with office jobs, such as human-resources and payroll officials, from the fund meant for direct-care workers, claiming some those officials spent as much as 100% of normal working hours assigned to direct-care duties from late March to the end of June.

In contrast, licensed practical nurses at the facility—where such workers are in near constant contact with patients—received less than $8,000 in hazard payments on average, because the payments were based on a percentage of normal compensation, a Journal analysis of state payroll data found.

While top managers such as Ms. Schiff-Heedles weren’t eligible at all, in some cases, workers with office jobs could qualify if they helped out during the crisis, but only for the actual hours in which they dealt with patients.

The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’s spokesman Kryn Westhoven said in a statement that the agency’s “leadership team is conducting a thorough review of all issued payments to ensure that employees that received the payments met the criteria.”

Mr. Mueller agreed to a repayment plan while discussions about returning the pay with Ms. Schiff-Heedles are “ongoing,” the statement said. “The Department will work vigorously to recoup the erroneous payments,” it said.

Ms. Schiff-Heedles didn’t respond to requests for comment this week. Asked about the payments in a brief call on March 3, she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You like to publish lies or untruths,” she added, without specifying any particular error.

Mr. Mueller didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Covid-19 swept through Menlo and a second agency-run veterans home in Paramus, N.J., in late March and April of last year, killing about a third of the roughly 600 residents at the two facilities. At times, dozens of workers called out sick, leaving the facilities short staffed until National Guard troops arrived to back them up in May.

The Veterans Home in Paramus, N.J., was hit hard by Covid-19 last year.



Photo:

timothy a. clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

At Menlo, Ms. Schiff-Heedles and her team mishandled the outbreak by withholding the presence of the coronavirus from families for a full week after identifying the first case, barring employees from wearing masks around residents and underreporting the number of patients killed by the virus, among other things, a Journal investigation published in October found.

Gov. Murphy fired Ms. Schiff-Heedles 10 days after the Journal’s article was published, on Oct. 16, as part of a broader overhaul of the veterans agency.

Nearly 100 people died during the height of the coronavirus outbreak at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in April, more than 10 times the number in a typical month. Among those who died were 84-year-old Isabella Kovacs and 86-year-old Joan Williams. Their stories provide a window into what went wrong at the New Jersey facility. Photo: Shari Davis/Julie Diaz

The payments identified by the Journal are an example of how oversight of the billions of dollars flowing into states for Covid-19 relief could have been lacking amid the chaos of the pandemic’s early months.

New Jersey received about $2.4 billion in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed last March.

As of the end of June, the state had accounted for only about 2% of the money, a federal report shows. In the months that followed spending ramped up. A New Jersey Treasury department spokeswoman, Jennifer Sciortino, said just over $2 billion has now been spent.

The state used some of the money to pay bonuses to direct-care workers such as the veterans agency officials, Ms. Sciortino said. A February budget document lists an allocation of $50 million for what the state calls “Emergency Rates,” the term it often uses for the hazard pay.

The program initially paid select workers such as those serving in state psychiatric hospitals and social workers doing abuse and neglect investigations. In June, the Civil Service Commission authorized the veterans agency to tap those funds for its workers, as well.

The bonuses took the form of time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked from March 28 to June 30 for employees whose jobs involved caring for patients or providing certain other direct services.

For many veterans-home workers, most of the extra money showed up in their Aug. 28 paychecks. The veterans agency confirmed that the payments appeared in public payroll data as retroactive pay in most cases. A portion of the payments appeared as overtime pay for some employees, including Ms. Schiff-Heedles and Mr. Mueller, the agency said.

The veterans agency confirmed that the retroactive amounts reflected exclusively hazard pay for a number of managers about whom the Journal inquired.

“Staff who perform out of title direct care worked during the COVID-19 State of Emergency, as allowed by Civil Service Guidance, may also be eligible for the emergency rate for the hours worked during which direct care is performed,” a state management official, Tony Brindisi, said in a June 4 email to other managers that was reviewed by the Journal.

The veterans agency said Menlo’s human-resources coordinator, business manager and payroll supervisor, as well as a couple of office workers at the Paramus veterans home, all qualified because they had performed duties such as serving meals and cleaning rooms when the facility was short-handed.

Ms. Jones said the Civil Service Commission approved their payments based on attestations provided by the veterans agency that they had performed such duties.

The payroll records show the administrative employees received the hazard pay in amounts that suggest they worked essentially full time on direct-care duties from March 28 to June 30 in such roles.

Menlo’s human-resources chief at the time, Dawn Graeme, received payments covering about 96% of normal working hours during that period. The business manager, Robyn Martin, received such payments covering 100% of normal hours during the period. The payroll supervisor got payments covering 91% of such hours.

Ms. Graeme, Ms. Martin and the payroll supervisor didn’t respond to requests for comment. HR and payroll officials at the Paramus and Menlo, who also received hazard payments, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Nurses, food service and housekeeping workers at the Menlo said in interviews with the Journal that they saw the office workers helping with residents only on a handful of occasions at the height of the crisis. For instance, a nurse said Ms. Graeme was observed changing residents’ bedding one weekend.

In Ms. Schiff-Heedles’s case, she received hazard pay that corresponds to about 96% of normal working hours from the end of March to the end of June. A video published on Facebook shows her dancing with residents in the hallways in mid-April as the crisis ballooned.

But nurses told the Journal that she was otherwise a rare presence in the resident’s units.

“A lot of times, we didn’t even know if she was in the building,” said Shirley Suddoth-Lewis, a former practical nurse at Menlo and a union official, referring to the time Ms. Schiff-Heedles was receiving hazard pay.

Write to Christopher Weaver at christopher.weaver@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Source: WSJ – US News

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