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Whittier employees fired in advance of union vote

Health center agrees to rehire workers after protests

Saphia Suarez
Whittier employees fired in advance of union vote
Labor activists and elected officials join Whittier Street Health Center employees protesting the firing of 13 staff last week. photo credit: Saphia Suarez

Thirteen Whittier Street Health Center employees who were fired last Thursday were offered their positions back Sunday afternoon after they rallied in protest outside the clinic last Friday. However, when they tried to re-enter the building Monday to discuss their rehiring, management told them they were trespassing and said they would call police if the workers did not leave.

Tuesday morning, the workers received emails notifying them they would be eligible to return to work Wednesday, the day they’re scheduled to vote on whether to join SEIU 1199, a local that organizes health care workers.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Whittier Street Health Center Friday to protest the firing of 13 staff members. photo credit: Saphia Suarez

Demonstrators gather in front of the Whittier Street Health Center Friday to protest the firing of 13 staff members. photo credit: Saphia Suarez

The fired employees were all part of the bargaining unit to unionize the clinic, and claim they were fired suddenly because of their efforts to unionize. However, Whittier CEO Frederica Williams cited the fact that the clinic did not receive two grants equaling $680,000 as the immediate cause of financial stress that forced her to lay off employees. She later said the clinic is actually expected to lose $1.2 million.

After dozens showed up to a protest on Friday, Mayor Martin Walsh called Williams. After speaking with the mayor over the weekend, Williams said in a statement to reporters that the health center has “a pathway forward that will put Whittier on a stable financial footing for now.” On Sunday afternoon Whittier let the fired employees know that they would be rehired.

A clinic staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Williams did not speak directly about labor issues during a staff meeting Monday.

“What was said at the meeting was that we do not have a date or time when those employees will be able to return to work,” the staff member said, adding that Williams “kept everything very much about finances, and that has been her go-to reasoning.”

The staff member continued that “it doesn’t really make much sense the way that the people were fired, that it would be related to ongoing funding issues.”

Others, too, said that the firings were too rash to be business decisions made in a time of financial stress.

“No plan was made to provide backup care for them [the patients],” said Jewett. “It was a rash decision made in the moment by the management group.”

Brenna Cyr, a domestic violence counselor at Whittier who was also fired Friday, said the clinic has been pushing back on the union campaign since the beginning.

“We knew they were very angry,” Cyr said. “There were a lot of emails sent out, they forced us to attend mandatory meetings. They cancelled our clients multiple times so that we could sit through anti-union propaganda.”

Staff members who spoke during the protest last week said that the well-being of the patients was called into question with these abrupt layoffs. No back up plan for patients was put in place when fired providers were suddenly escorted out of the building on Thursday.

“I’ve already had people come here for their appointments, find out I was fired, and have to walk away,” said Cyr on Friday, the day after she was laid off.

She is the only domestic violence counselor at Whittier, so her clients, many of whom had serious safety concerns, were left without any support. The same was true for the behavioral health therapists fired, who had patients dealing with serious mental illness and in some cases, suicidal thoughts or tendencies, Whittier staff said.

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