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Roxbury workers stunned by hospital closure

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Roxbury workers stunned by hospital closure
Nursing assistant Muriel O’Flaherty (l) and switchboard operator Naomi Walker, who are losing their jobs at Radius Hospital, came to an open house for displaced Radius workers at 1199 SEIU headquarters. (Banner photo)

Employees of Radius Specialty Hospital received a surprise announcement last week that its Quincy and Roxbury facilities would be permanently closing immediately, causing patients at the two long-term acute care sites to be relocated and some 350 employees to lose their jobs.

In a brief letter to representatives of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, dated Sept. 22, Radius Director of Human Resources Christine Bresnahan said, “All employees will be laid off and each entire worksite will be closed permanently.”

Layoffs were expected to start the following day and be complete by October 7.

“People were crying,” said Cassandra Gittens, an administrator reached by phone at Radius’ Roxbury site. “Many people had to leave the room. None of us knew the hospital was in jeopardy. Some of these people have never had another job.”

Gittens also expressed concern for patients and their families.

“People don’t even know where their family members are going to be relocated to,” she said.

Christopher Caufield, a nurse in the psychiatric department at Radius and a union representative for the Mass Nursing Association, said Radius’ patients come from all over the state, and are among the most difficult patients to place.

“There’s already an extreme shortage of psych units across the state,” he said. “Closing this, there won’t be many other places to go. The psych unit here takes a lot of people who nobody else wants to take.” He predicted that patients who can’t be placed in nursing homes will be placed in emergency rooms.

Radius has been operating its 84-bed Roxbury facility at 59 Townsend Street, the former Jewish Memorial Hospital, since it acquired the financially-strapped older hospital in 2006. The Quincy site has 38 beds, located within Quincy Medical Center.

Both sites served patients coming from intensive care units and requiring an extended stay, and specialized in intensive rehabilitation of patients with respiratory conditions requiring ventilator care and patients with other medically complex conditions, according to the hospital’s website.

According to the letter from Bresnahan to the union, the closure is the result of an “unexpected decline in patient census” at Radius-Quincy, which resulted in the hospital’s lender seizing funds and leaving the hospital unable to continue operations.

Stewart Grossman, an attorney serving as spokesperson for Radius, said the sudden drop in patient count came when South Shore Hospital, which had supplied a large percentage of referrals to Radius-Quincy, stopped referring patients in mid-August. Patients are being referred instead to skilled nursing facilities, apparently in accordance with a new health care reform model pushing the use of Accountable Care Organizations instead of long term acute care.

After the Radius-Quincy patient count plummeted, Radius informed the state Department of Public Health they did not have the funds to keep the facilities open, Grossman said. The process of patient relocation to other facilities is “moving along” and should be completed over the next 30 days.

Normally, 60 days’ notice to employees is required for large employment site closures, under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. The Radius letter claims “unforeseeable business circumstances” allow the reduced notice period.

But union officials are crying foul at the short notice and taking the fight to court.

“1199 is filing litigation that argues these were not unforeseeable circumstances,” said Jeff Hall, a spokesperson for 1199SEIU, which represents 50 Radius employees in Quincy and 120 in Roxbury.

On Monday, the local 1199SEIU headquarters invited displaced Radius employees to visit an all-day open house for assistance with health insurance and job referrals.

Hillie Sampson, 56, a full-time cook at the Roxbury hospital for 37 years, was at the open house seeking health insurance for himself and his wife. Sampson also works part-time as a security guard, but needs a full-time income to pay his home mortgage and make ends meet.

He is unfamiliar with today’s online job application systems, but is optimistic he’ll find something, and SEIU staff had encouraging news about an open cook position at Boston Medical Center.

“I’m old, but I’m still fast. And I have a lot of experience,” he said.

According to SEIU representatives, employees at the Roxbury site will receive pay for unused vacation time, a lump sum severance payment that varies with length of service, and two weeks’ salary. (The suit SEIU has filed demands 60 days’ salary, Hall said.) But they will not get back pay for unused sick time. This is especially unfortunate for Sampson, who over his tenure at the hospital accrued 397 hours of unused sick time, he said, pulling out pay stubs to prove it.

Certified nursing assistant Muriel O’Flaherty has worked at the hospital for 20 years, most recently on the 11–7 night shift, and was stunned last week to find out the hospital was closing. Though she is 65, she was not planning to retire for some years.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of communication,” she said. “We’ve given them 100 percent. When there was a snow emergency, I came in. They should have some kind of respect for us.”

O’Flaherty is still reporting to work to care for the 30 patients not yet relocated. She spoke of the bonds formed in the long-term care facility.

“Patients look forward to you being there, talking to them, combing their hair. Some of them can’t talk, but they know my voice,” she said. “Some of them don’t have any visitors. All of us, staff and patients, are like a family.”

Part-time switchboard operator Naomi Walker was informed by phone that her job of 32 years was disappearing. She may take some time off to work for her community, she said. Then will seek another job, perhaps working with children as she did in the past.

Walker said she hopes all her co-workers will be able to find work. About her own future, she expressed optimism and faith.

“I will survive, because I always have and always will,” she said. “I’m a strong believer.”

Besides leaving longtime employees jobless, the exit of Radius leaves empty buildings in Roxbury. The large site on Townsend Street, with its multi-story tan brick structures and parking lots, was occupied by the Jewish Memorial Hospital for 75 years before Radius acquired it. Before that, it was the original location of Beth Israel Hospital.

Grossman said he did not know yet what the fate of the building will be. The building is owned by Radius Hospital Realty Trust, he said, but the mortgage is now in default.

“If anyone is interested in acquiring it, they should call me,” he said. “It’s perfect for another health care facility. Some say it’s perfect for a psychiatric hospital. But it could be developed into other things.”

Yawu Miller contributed reporting to this story.