The community gave the former employees of Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System a Christmas they won't soon forget.
Each of the 78 full-time employees of the hospital received $467.63 each that was paid for by the community. Churches, individuals, companies and organizations collected money and donated it to a fund to help the employees have a Christmas for their families. Together the groups collected $36,476.50.
"The community has been really generous," said Samantha Blankenship, a 31-year-old former Eastern Ozarks RN. "That was so awesome. I couldn't believe they pulled together for us like that."
"It's made a huge difference for everyone," said former director of nursing Val West.
The checks were distributed Dec. 21 at First National Banking Company. Just as employees deposited their checks most received another check from the U.S. Department of Labor-- their last paycheck from Eastern Ozarks.
"Everybody had been calling and complaining after they didn't get their checks on the 10th and they began an investigation," West said.
All but four full-time hourly employees and the salaried employees received checks Dec. 21, said Chad Dalton, investigator with the department. West said she does not know when the other employees will be paid.
Elizabeth Todd, public affairs specialist with the department, said the wage and hour division of the federal office has an open and ongoing investigation but would not release any details of the case.
"God has really come through for us," Blankenship said. "I don't know what we would have done if we hadn't received our checks."
Former housekeeping supervisor Rita Cobb said the two checks couldn't have come at a better time and her money is already earmarked. She said she is going to pay bills.
"It was devastating when we didn't receive our paychecks," Cobb said. "It was like a kick in the stomach. We were all counting on our checks."
Cobb said over the years payday often became a day of worry for hospital employees. She said the checks were often postdated or would bounce.
"It's too bad when you can't count on your paychecks being good," Cobb said. "We didn't have anything. We had a job and a man who didn't care about us."
Cobb said she has been looking for a new job but hasn't had any luck as of yet.
"This time of year, no one is hiring unless you want to drive 80 to 100 miles to go to work," she said. It showed on the scanner with all this snow how much they need us. This area needs a hospital and we sure need our jobs back."
West, who remains unpaid because she is a salaried employee, said the holidays have been financially difficult for her but she was more concerned about her former employees.
"I've just had to be real careful with my money and do a little less for Christmas, but several people had to go to the Mission of Hope to get food. People weren't able to pay their bills. Most people live paycheck to paycheck and they weren't able to cope."
West will begin working in January at Ozarka College in Melbourne as a nursing instructor.
The lack of a paycheck for almost two weeks affected more than just the former employees, Blankenship said. Her younger sister normally baby-sat her son for her during the week while Blankenship would work. Her sister depended on that money each week but without a job and a regular paycheck Blankenship kept her son at home with her.
In addition, she was unable to provide a Christmas for her four nieces and one nephew who come from a financially strained family.
"I've had six checks bounce and I've got a shut off notice from the electric company and I have to pay those first," Blankenship said. "I wasn't able to get the kids much for Christmas, but when you are broke you can't afford anything."
"My Christmas tree had two presents under it and they were from Peace Lutheran Church for my son," she said.
Blankenship has begun training at St. Bernard's Medical Center in Jonesboro, 88 miles from her home in Horseshoe Bend.
"I have to make a house payment. My credit cards are maxed out. I'm probably going to have to move to get back on track and actually get somewhere," she said. "It's hard to change your budget when you have payments you are locked in to."
Eastern Ozarks was forced to lay off its employees after the Arkansas Department of Health suspended operations Dec. 1. Investigators with the Health Department found 33 possible violations, most of which related to longstanding financial problems.