Through a lawsuit filed Tuesday morning in federal court, the New York state Nurses Association is claiming Albany Medical Center's Filipino recruitment program violates human trafficking laws.
The program has recruited nearly 600 nurses over 18 years.
"Each recruited nurse is required to sign a contract with a forced labor penalty provision,” said Steven Toff, the union’s deputy general counsel. “We believe this is clearly illegal."
The penalty provision stipulates any nurse recruited through the program, who leaves their position before their initial three-year contract expires, must pay the hospital between $10,000 and $20,000.
"They shouldn't be penalized once they decide to leave,” said Jennifer Bejo, a nurse at the hospital.
A native of the Philippines, Bejo was recruited to Albany Med through the program 13 years ago.
"I signed the contract in good faith," Bejo said.
While she's willingly stayed well beyond her first contract, Bejo believes the financial penalties dissuade other nurses from leaving.
"It's a constraint, it restricts them," Bejo said.
Albany Medical Center’s soon-to-be chief executive hosted an afternoon press conference to rebut the union’s claims.
"We feel compelled to respond and defend ourselves against NYSNA's outrageous allegations," said Albany Med CEO Designate Dr. Dennis McKenna.
McKenna said immigration lawyers helped the hospital craft a perfectly legal and professional program.
"This is a groundless lawsuit being used to try to influence our negotiations for a nurses' contract," McKenna said.
While union lawyers have called the fees "exorbitant," McKenna says the penalties fairly help recoup immigration, legal, transportation, and other expenses.
"We'll see when the legal proceedings unfold, whether or not that opinion is held up,” McKenna said of the union’s claim. “I would disagree with it."
Ultimately, the lawsuit aims to have the contracts declared illegal and unenforceable. Albany Med stands by its practices.
"It is a blatant mischaracterization of an excellent program," McKenna said.
"This is not the way to treat people who travel from the other side of the world to treat the Albany community,” Toff said. “This is not the way to treat anyone."
In the lawsuit, the union has accused the hospital of reporting employees who break their contracts to immigration officials, potentially resulting in their deportation. McKenna flatly denies that claim.