Esperi Care, which made headlines over the winter due to cases of neglect at its old-age homes, is now accused of poor handling of its staff.
A practical nurse from the Päijät-Häme region of southern Finland is taking one of Finland's biggest private social services firms, Esperi Care, to court over a de facto pay cut.
According to the Finnish Union of Practical Nurses (SuPer), as many as 1,000 Esperi employees have had the same experience. A decision in the case could force the firm to repay all of them for months of lost income, it says.
The dispute centres on a so-called Esperi bonus, which the company has paid to some 1,000 nurses and other staffers for several years. The bonus has usually been 40-50 euros a month, but SuPer says it has been quietly trimmed or dropped without notification.
Employees began to notice the slight decline after wages rose last summer in line with the latest collective bargaining agreement. Now one nurse is launching legal action.
"Last June the nurse's minimum wage rose by 17 euros, and at the same time this agreed bonus of 17 euros was taken away, so the wage increase was exactly zero euros. The employee did not benefit at all from the wage increase that we agreed on," says Jukka Parkkola, a contract negotiator at SuPer.
According to the lawsuit, Esperi Care unilaterally slashed the nurse's Esperi bonus from 39.59 euros to 22.48 euros a month, a drop of 17.11 euros. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the nurse's salary should have gone by exactly the same amount, 17.11 euros.
Union: 'Zero sum game' unacceptable
Esperi admits that some employees' bonuses were adjusted when the minimum wage rate was raised last June.
"In those cases where an employee had an Esperi bonus and a wage that was already above the minimum wage level, pay was not raised. Those individuals whose overall pay already exceeded the minimum wage level did not receive an overall pay increase, but their pay was not decreased either," says Esperi's Head of Human Resources Maria Pajamo told Yle.
The union says this is unacceptable.
"According to how we interpret the law, a wage benefit that has been agreed as part of a work contract cannot be unilaterally taken away just by saying 'now we're raising your wage but at the same time taking something off from the other end', which is kind of a zero sum game," Parkkola says.
Parkkola says that many Esperi employees have contacted the union over the issue.
"In a way, this one employee will now be fighting on behalf of the others. If this one dispute is won, then we will of course require that Esperi correct this matter in all the other cases and repay the workers for this cancelled bonus," he says.
The trial is set to begin in Lahti in June, with the nurse seeking 152 euros in lost income.
In June, nurses' minimum monthly wages are to go up by around 20 euros according to the collective agreement. Parkkola is concerned that Esperi will attempt to handle this way as last summer.
Recruitment still difficult
Esperi's Pajamo says that the firm has phased out the Esperi bonus, which was offered to boost recruitment in areas where it had trouble finding staff a few years ago. These included eastern and northern Finland as well as the Helsinki region – where the firm says it still has trouble hiring enough qualified staff.
In January, Esperi's CEO quit after welfare and health watchdog Valvira shut down one of its nursing homes where an elderly resident’s death was suspected to be caused by negligence.
Esperi Care has about 6,300 employees, most of them registered nurses and practical nurses. Established in 2001, the firm had a turnover of 270 million euros last year, up from just 50 million in 2011. The firm has grown quickly by taking over dozens of smaller companies. It now has 130 nursing homes around Finland with some 8,000 resident beds. Esperi's principal owner is the British asset manager firm Intermediate Capital Group.