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Kevin Cullen

A head with a heart

President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Paul Levy may have found an alternative to layoffs. (Globestaff/Pat Greenhouse) President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Paul Levy may have found an alternative to layoffs.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 12, 2009
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It was the kind of meeting that is taking place in restaurant kitchens, small offices, retail storerooms, and large auditoriums all over this city, all over this state, all over this country.

Paul Levy, the guy who runs Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was standing in Sherman Auditorium the other day, before some of the very people to whom he might soon be sending pink slips.

In the days before the meeting, Levy had been walking around the hospital, noticing little things.

He stood at the nurses' stations, watching the transporters, the people who push the patients around in wheelchairs. He saw them talk to the patients, put them at ease, make them laugh. He saw that the people who push the wheelchairs were practicing medicine.

He noticed the same when he poked his head into the rooms and watched as the people who deliver the food chatted up the patients and their families.

He watched the people who polish the corridors, who strip the sheets, who empty the trash cans, and he realized that a lot of them are immigrants, many of them had second jobs, most of them were just scraping by.

And so Paul Levy had all this bouncing around his brain the other day when he stood in Sherman Auditorium.

He looked out into a sea of people and recognized faces: technicians, secretaries, administrators, therapists, nurses, the people who are the heart and soul of any hospital. People who knew that Beth Israel had hired about a quarter of its 8,000 staff over the last six years and that the chances that they could all keep their jobs and benefits in an economy in freefall ranged between slim and none.

"I want to run an idea by you that I think is important, and I'd like to get your reaction to it," Levy began. "I'd like to do what we can to protect the lower-wage earners - the transporters, the housekeepers, the food service people. A lot of these people work really hard, and I don't want to put an additional burden on them.

"Now, if we protect these workers, it means the rest of us will have to make a bigger sacrifice," he continued. "It means that others will have to give up more of their salary or benefits."

He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when Sherman Auditorium erupted in applause. Thunderous, heartfelt, sustained applause.

Paul Levy stood there and felt the sheer power of it all rush over him, like a wave. His eyes welled and his throat tightened so much that he didn't think he could go on.

When the applause subsided, he did go on, telling the workers at Beth Israel, the people who make a hospital go, that he wanted their ideas.

The lump had barely left his throat when Paul Levy started getting e-mails.

The consensus was that the workers don't want anyone to get laid off and are willing to give up pay and benefits to make sure no one does. A nurse said her floor voted unanimously to forgo a 3 percent raise. A guy in finance who got laid off from his last job at a hospital in Rhode Island suggested working one less day a week. Another nurse said she was willing to give up some vacation and sick time. A respiratory therapist suggested eliminating bonuses.

"I'm getting about a hundred messages per hour," Levy said yesterday, shaking his head.

Paul Levy is onto something. People are worried about the next paycheck, because they're only a few paychecks away from not being able to pay the mortgage or the rent.

But a lot of them realize that everybody's in the same boat and that their boat doesn't rise because someone else's sinks.

Paul Levy is trying something revolutionary, radical, maybe even impossible: He is trying to convince the people who work for him that the E in CEO can sometimes stand for empathy.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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