Last year, the director of nursing at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home earned more than $87,000 in overtime and “other pay,” bringing her total compensation for the year to more than $217,000 and making her one of the most highly compensated managers on the state payroll, according to payment records.
The significant pay bump has raised questions because the claimed overtime implies a workload that some Chelsea staffers find implausible and because the director, Shereda Grossett, is known as an ally of the home’s embattled superintendent, Eric Johnson.
The Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, which provides shelter and medical care for military veterans, has been criticized for substandard living conditions and a hostile work culture. In a scathing letter last week, the state’s top watchdog, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, described filthy residential rooms and a “catastrophic failure” of the Chelsea home’s leaders.
He also flagged the apparent overtime irregularity. “One [state] report,” he wrote, citing records his office obtained from the agencies overseeing the home, “found that it was ‘more likely than not’ that the superintendent and the director of nursing violated the Home’s overtime policy and the Commonwealth’s telework policy.”
He added: “As leaders of the Home, the superintendent and director of nursing set the tone for the staff; their failure to follow the rules signals to the staff that the rules do not matter.”
A lawyer for Grossett said her client “denies breaking any rules in connection with her work for the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, and we look forward to cooperating with the inspector general’s inquiry.”
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said, “We continue to collaborate with the [Office of Inspector General]’s ongoing investigation.” Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey said the acting HHS secretary is working quickly to get more information about the home to determine next steps. “What’s important here is the health and safety of veterans at the home,” said the spokesperson, Karissa Hand.
Grossett was named acting director of nursing in the fall of 2021 in the midst of a swirling controversy that remains the subject of ongoing litigation. A contractor, Beth Scheffler, who had been serving as acting director of nursing, was fired after she raised concerns about the home’s management, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit she filed in federal court.
The home’s leaders subsequently promoted Grossett into the role, in a move that puzzled some staffers. Grossett, then a staff development nurse, appeared to have leapfrogged the home’s highly qualified assistant director of nursing, Patricia Famolare, according to two Chelsea staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
By early October, Grossett had assumed her new responsibilities and began including “Acting Chief Nursing Officer,” another term for director of nursing, in her e-mail signature.
A director of nursing, like most managers, is generally ineligible for overtime payments, according to state rules. But Grossett, whose base pay as director of nursing was $136,000, might have been eligible for overtime while serving in an acting capacity.
“Ms. Grossett was not in a permanent management role until May 2022. Prior to that . . . she was eligible for overtime,” the Health and Human Services spokesperson said.
During those months, the payment records imply that Grossett worked an extraordinary number of extra hours.
In approximately four months, she earned more than $129,000, according to the records and a Chelsea staffer who watched the records update in real time. The staffer spoke on condition on anonymity for fear of retaliation.
That sum included approximately $65,000 of overtime pay, implying a workload of approximately 80 hours per week, and more than $20,000 of “other pay,” which was not specified but may include hazard pay and COVID-related bonuses.
Although she was serving as acting director of nursing during those months, she was coded in the payroll system as a registered nurse, according to the state records. The designation may have given her access to perks generally reserved for nurses, such as the COVID-related bonuses. (The Health and Human Services spokesperson did not respond to a question about the coding.)
Johnson has a hand in approving Grossett’s overtime, according to three Chelsea staffers. (The staffers are members of unions that signed a statement of no confidence in Johnson last year.)
The handling of Grossett’s compensation contrasts with a parallel situation at the state’s other soldiers’ home, in Holyoke. There, as in Chelsea, a nurse was promoted to acting director of nursing in 2021. But in 2022 her overtime payments dropped to zero, according to state records.
The scrutiny of Grossett’s overtime adds to a wider picture of disorder at the Chelsea home.
In his letter last week, Shapiro cited state records that described veterans being found “soaked in urine and sitting in feces” and a toxic work environment in which at least one worker had a “reasonable” belief that managers had “targeted [him] for retaliation.”
One August 2022 report said that at least a dozen rooms at the home were in “terrible” condition and contained feces, dead rodents, dirt, and bugs, according to the letter.
Scheffler, before she was fired as acting nursing director in 2021, had raised the alarm about the condition of the veterans’ medical records, which she found in piles on the floor of a storage room. She described her concerns in an e-mail to Johnson, the superintendent, adding that in one recent case the home’s staff had been unable to locate a resident’s records for “an extended period of time.”
Other apparent lapses at the home were recorded in a federal Department of Veterans Affairs survey in early 2022, which found a litany of regulatory violations related to smoke detectors, the distribution of medication to veterans, and other issues. “The Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts is not in compliance with VA regulations,” said a summary of the survey sent to Johnson.
A state report last year said that of the 11 deficiencies cited, none “were high scope or severity.” The Health and Human Services spokesperson said that a “Corrective Action Plan has since been accepted and the Home has achieved provisional certification.”
The issues at the Chelsea home have received less attention than those at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 84 veterans died during COVID outbreaks, leading to criminal charges against the former superintendent and medical director. (The charges were dismissed, but state lawyers have asked a judge to reinstate them.)
Johnson, who took over as superintendent at the Chelsea home in late 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, has had a tumultuous tenure. He was named as a defendant in Scheffler’s lawsuit. Separately, he was placed on paid administrative leave last June while being investigated for matters that the state has declined to discuss publicly.
Johnson has also faced personal financial difficulties, according to public records. In 2008, he defaulted on a loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2009, he filed for bankruptcy in Arizona. In 2017, in Massachusetts, he was the subject of a $25,056 federal tax lien.
In September, when the unions representing workers at the home received word that Johnson would be reinstated, there was an uproar.
Union members sent e-mails to the state’s Veterans’ Services secretary, Cheryl Poppe, who has oversight of the Chelsea home, urging her not to bring Johnson back. In the letter of no confidence, they accused him of bullying, harassment, and mismanagement.
Poppe responded to the union stewards in a Sept. 30 letter that read, in part, “Although I will not comment on individual personnel issues, please be assured that we take all employee allegations of policy violations seriously.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed research to this report.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.