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.

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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.”