Michael Clifford: Do the Sisters of Charity have a moral obligation to pay staff redundancy? 

The Sisters of Charity says it does not have the funds to pay redundancy to staff laid off at three nursing homes. While the charity might not have a legal obligation to these staff, does it not have a moral one, asks Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Do the Sisters of Charity have a moral obligation to pay staff redundancy? 
07/08/2020 Demonstrators during a protest at St. Monica’s Nursing Home to highlight the fact that over 200 staff are being made redundant and 160 beds will be lost from the system due to the closure of three health care facilities owned by the Sisters of Charity. Staff affected by these closures have been working in St. Monica’s Nursing Home, St. Mary’s Centre Telford and Caritas Convalescent Centre. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Sisters of Charity was founded by Mary Aikenhead in Ireland in 1815. Its motto is Caritas Christi urget nos, which translates as “The love of Christ urges us on.” 

One might well ask what Christ would have made of how the sisters are currently conducting themselves at the moment and what Christ might have urged them to do.

The Sisters of Charity has made a major contribution to healthcare in this country. Most notably, the organisation owned and ran St Vincents Hospital since its foundation by Ms Aikenhead in 1834. 

In recent years, this became controversial through the location of the new maternity hospital on the St Vincent’s campus in Dublin. Many people were concerned that the ethos, as promoted by the Sisters, would be in conflict with the law, particularly in relation to abortion. That was ultimately resolved last month with the announcement that the sisters were “gifting” St Vincent’s to the state.

So much for the Sisters getting out of the business of being born. Now it also appears that, to a large extent, they are getting out of healthcare for those at the other end of the human lifespan.

In March, the Sisters of Charity-owned Caritas convalescent home on Dublin’s Merrion Road was closed after 23 of its staff of 64 contracted Covid-19. The home is now in the process of being liquidated.

Despite advertising itself as providing “high quality health care in an atmosphere of Christian love and compassion”, the Sisters appear to have difficulties extending the same ethos to its former staff.

The now unemployed staff felt forced to go to the Labour Court to get what they considered fair treatment in redundancy. The subsequent hearing was conducted in the presence of three trade unions representing the workers and the liquidator. Nobody was there for the Sisters of Charity, although it was noted that the court was convened at short notice.

The ruling, last week, was that the staff should be given public sector scale redundancy payments. As of yet, the sisters have not responded to this ruling.

Two other healthcare facilities owned by the Sisters of Charity are now also being wound up. St Mary’s Nursing home, also on Dublin’s Merrion Road, has 35 female residents, all of whom are being moved out. St Monica’s, located in Belvedere on Dublin’s northside, is also at the end of its days. It has a capacity for 46 residents and employs 60 staff. 

Last week, it was reported that the Sisters of Charity has stated it is “extremely disappointed to learn that there may not be enough funds to pay statutory redundancy to the staff” at both of these facilities. 

On Tuesday, the High Court appointed provisional liquidators to St Monica’s Nursing Home Ltd. The court was told that the company, a registered charity, was insolvent. One of the problems is the cost of remedial work required to be done to deal with fire safety deficiencies.

The court heard that the company’s main creditors were its employees, who are collectively owed up to €900,000 in redundancy and other payments.

What emerges from the plight of the three separate institutions is a set of circumstances which would render continuing in healthcare as very challenging.

Looking at the challenges through the cold lens of business, it is entirely understandable that the sisters chose to throw their hats at it. Running nursing homes, since the outset of the pandemic, has become extremely challenging and various issues have arisen in these facilities to exacerbate the problems.

The winding up of the three facilities is being conducted legally and taking a route well trod in business. All three were run through charitable entities. The Sisters of Charity is thus removed from direct corporate responsibility. The charity is not obliged to fill any gaps in funding, or even to pay the staff that are being left shortchanged. If the money isn’t available in the entities responsible for the homes then tough luck.

That is the kind of approach that many businesses take in washing their hands of a failed venture. But the Sisters of Charity is supposed to be more than just a vehicle to make money.

For instance, in the controversy over the maternity hospital, the Sisters’ religious ethos as it pertained to abortion was a major issue. That’s understandable, but where stands the religious ethos when it comes to ensuring that those who worked tirelessly on the frontline – some of whom contracted the virus – are left high and dry? There is no question that the Sisters of Charity are meeting their legal obligation, but do they believe that they have any moral obligation to their departing staff?

It’s not as if the Sisters are strapped. Apart from whatever wealth they currently own, the sites on Merrion Road which are being vacated will fetch lucrative sums for what is one of the most salubrious addresses in Dublin.

Yet, they are “extremely disappointed” that they can’t even provide the smallest measure of comfort to redundant staff. One might ask whether they are being urged along their current path by the love of Christ or the love of Mammon.

Neither, it would appear, has there been much effort to attempt to secure the future of these facilities in conjunction with the HSE. Questions submitted to the Sisters of Charity in relation to this were not answered at the time of going to press.

"In relation to St Monica’s, the HSE replied that it is “not considering taking over the governance and maintenance of any additional private nursing home at this time”.

Who knows? Maybe even at this late stage the Sisters of Charity may find room to look into their hearts and emerge with a plan that would sit comfortably with their religious ethos.

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