City Hall employees cast aside after layoffs

More than a month after New Haven’s City Hall announced that the city would close a $6 million gap in the city’s annual budget partly by laying off 34 employees, several of the affected workers are still questioning their firings.

A round of layoffs Sept. 19 saw 34 staffers from across 12 departments and the Board of Education lose their jobs. The workforce cuts will save the city $900,000, while other cost-cutting measures including reductions in city services will make up the difference.

City officials say it is ‘unlikely’ that the 34 laid-off employees will return to their jobs in City Hall.
Mayra Macias
City officials say it is ‘unlikely’ that the 34 laid-off employees will return to their jobs in City Hall.

The layoffs were abrupt, though not entirely unexpected. Most of the affected employees showed up to work only to find they were out of a job the morning of Sept. 19, following a week of uncertainty and negotiations between city officials and leaders of local unions, Locals 3144 and 884.

Layoffs hit New Haven

A 14-year veteran of the Board of Education, Karen Droz came to work that Friday morning. She was told there was an important letter for her in her office.

“Watching the news that week, I put two and two together,” an outspoken and frustrated Droz said in an interview with the News.

Although she was aware of the impending layoffs, she added, no one knew which employees would be let go, and so she was still surprised by her dismissal.

Losing her job also came as a shock to Robyn Odei-Ntiri, who was on vacation in Florida at the time. Odei-Ntiri, who worked as a bookkeeper for the city for 19 and a half years, said she received notice from a UPS mailing the Monday after the other employees found out.

“I really thought the unions would work to get us back,” said Odei-Ntiri, a single mother with three young children.

Frank Blee, a warehouse manager for the public works department, said he was told the week before there would be layoffs in his department, and to expect a phone call if he was being dismissed. Still, he said, he was surprised because “no one knew who it was going to be.”

Among the concessions offered by the unions, which had been meeting with city officials since February, were a one-day furlough for all union members and the cutting of two paid vacation days, according to Local 3144 President Larry Amendola.

In September, Amendola told the News the union had proposed several last-ditch concessions to forestall the dismissals. But in response at the time, New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts countered that the unions had not been willing to sacrifice enough, forcing the city to cut a group of workers instead of “spread[ing] the pain out.”

Popularity over seniority?

Droz claims she is “moving on and trying to be positive.” Outbursts of bitterness and frustration punctuated her speech as she reflected on the layoffs.

Chief among her criticisms of the city’s handling of the layoffs was what she described as the city’s arbitrary method of choosing which employees to discharge. As the assistant director of parent involvement for Head Start — an early childhood education program run by the Board of Education — Droz said she had seniority over another Head Start employee with the same title, yet her colleague was not laid off.

City officials said they worked with the unions to determine which employees had enough seniority to “bump” lower-level workers from their positions. In their words, the less senior employee in each case would be laid off while the senior employee would receive a new job. Three out of the original 34 workers laid off received different jobs on Oct. 10 ago by virtue of “bumping” others out.

Droz said she felt that the layoffs had been based more on popularity with administrators than on merit and seniority, citing the fact that city officials later demoted her colleague at the Board of Education to a lower-paying position while allowing him to keep a job.

But Jessica Mayorga, City Hall spokeswoman, maintained that city administrators had abided by union contracts and regulations when deciding which employees to dismiss.

“It was a careful process involving labor unions … we made sure we were of course working with the parameters established by bumping rights,” she said Tuesday.

Droz and Odei-Ntiri said they are still confused about the circumstances surrounding the layoffs. Both said they heard that only employees whose salaries came from New Haven’s general funds — as opposed to salaries drawn from special federal grant funds, which were the source of their paychecks — would be laid off.

The federal funds for the Head Start program she worked for were meant to help New Haven public school children, Droz explained. Because she was a parent advocate, responsible for voicing parents’ concerns about city schools to the Board of Education, Droz questioned the reduction of city services for families.

“How is that managing your dollars the best way?” she demanded, her voice swelling in indignation. “How can you have a slogan ‘Kids First’ when you’re not only playing around with people’s lives but with the federal budget [for children]?”

The layoffs are just one of several cost-cutting measures New Haven is taking to fill the hole in its budget — a gap caused in part by the ongoing Wall Street crisis, which has severely reduced state aid to cities — but union leaders and city alderman have said there may be other ways to save money, such as switching to a four-day workweek.

Chief Administrative Officer Smuts has said he welcomes such proposals. But for now, it seems unlikely that the 34 laid-off workers will be getting their jobs back.

Limited options for former workers

Affected employees had two weeks to choose between two different severance packages, a city press release said. If they agreed to sign a “general release,” giving up their rights to sue the city or make claims later on, they received $5,000 in severance pay, health care benefits until the end of this year, pension benefits and three months’ access to employee counseling. If not, they received two weeks of severance pay, and both counseling and health care until the end of September.

Droz said she was considering not signing the release so she could have the option to sue the city, but ultimately signed because her daughter had just enrolled in college; she needed the extra severance cash. Besides, she continued, suing the city could take up to three years — a burden she was not ready to take on.

Despite her frustration, Droz conceded that all she and the other employees could do was to wait and see if the situation improved.

“But that does not mean that I don’t believe I was mistreated,” she added.

Odei-Ntiri said she did not sign the release, in the hope that she would recover her job soon with the help of her union, Local 3144.

“I just want to be on the layoff list because I want to go back to work,” she said, referring to a list of workers who will be given the option of getting jobs with the city again if positions open up within the next two years.

Meanwhile, Odei-Ntiri said she is hoping that her union can work something out as she looks for other jobs.

Former employee Blee, as well as others interviewed, declined to talk about their severance packages. “I’m right in the middle of searching for jobs, and I just don’t want to get into this,” he told the News.

And, soon, he may have company.

Spokeswoman Mayorga did not rule out the possibility of future layoffs.

“It’s a difficult economic climate globally and it’s impossible to say that anything is absolute,” she said. “But we continue to work to maintain savings.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Yancey at you can learn basic employee rights

    Here is yet another example of why I believe this country needs the (EFCA) Employee Free Choice Act.
    Karen Droz like some many others has fallen victim to “At Will” employment. At-will simply put means an employee can be fired at any time, for any reason or no reason. The employee can also fire the employer for any or no reason. The burden of proving your termination not being justified is on you! If you are employed At Will, your employer does not need good cause to fire you. However, if you are terminated directly for any reason that violates laws protecting employees against discrimination or retaliation for reporting abuses, At Will doesn't apply.
    The Employee Free Choice Act by design creates a true partnership between employer and employee. In my view, "At Will" doctrine has spawned and reinforces an employment environment that is;
    (1)adversarial by creating an "us versus them" employment mindset
    (2)emboldens employers to maintain, sustain and perpetuate discriminatory employment practices
    3)monumentally wasteful of monetary resources and public goodwill in needless litigation
    According to the language of the Free Choice Act, it will:
    (1)give employees greater liberty to form unions and establish employment contracts
    (2)punish anti union employer retaliation and harassment
    (3)compel employers to deal timely and honestly in negotiating contracts

    I believe that elements of corporate America want to maintain an antiquated and out dated system of employment to preserve the ability to discriminate against certain groups and races. Here is the evidence to support that assertion. In fiscal year 2007, 37.0% of all (EEOC) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints filed were race discrimination based. 30.1% were sex discrimination based and national origin is 11.4%.
    The Employee Free Choice Act will provide for employee majority sign-up instead of the present majority vote system, which is subject to management coercion and harassment. Employers typically use intimidation and threats adversely affecting the workers employment experience by:
    (1) manipulation of compensation
    (2) changing working conditions
    (3) changing work hours
    (4) demotion
    (5) negative job reviews
    (6) termination
    I believe the Employee Free Choice Act will create a true power-sharing environment by reason of collective bargaining agreements that amount to employment contracts for most workers in all industries. In my opinion, the EFCA would foster trust, accountability and respect from both sides.
    Since there is no binding employment contract between Ms. Droz and her employer she is skillfully manipulated into accepting a “severance package” that is clearly adverse to her needs. Unfortunately when dealing with local, state and federal governments as employers the enforcing of employment rights is a hill that’s steeper to climb.

  • Voice of Reason

    Yancey,

    Say good bye to ALL the jobs then.

    In trying to save the jobs of the few, you will sacrifice those jobs of the many.

    Employers need to be able to quickly retool their labor force, hiring and firing at will, the economy demands flexibility.

    The Detroit auto makers unions tried to prevent at-will firing- and it saved them in the short tem, but in the long term they are obsolete, useless, complacent, and soon to be unemployed.

    Machines do not demand benefits, decry discrimination at every turn, leave to work for competitors, nor steal from their employer.

    The Employee Free Choice Act will rob you of the only power you have: a vibrant labor market where the best employee gets the job and gets promoted and compensated.

    In the long run the cream rises to the top, despite nepotism, discrimination, etc.

    If you want to see you job shipped overseas, then by all means, push for the Employee Free Choice Act.