Laid-Off Hospital Mgrs. Weigh Age-Bias Suits
Just over a month ago, the municipal-hospital system terminated close to 400 management employees in one of the largest layoffs in years.
They were preceded earlier in the year by more than 70 manager terminations. From the beginning of the de Blasio administration, despite a rising tide of red ink at the municipal-hospital system, there had been a pledge of no layoffs.
But the cost-cutting move that targeted the agency’s management was essential, according to Stanley Brezenoff, interim president and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals. Last month, Mr. Brezenoff cited the need to cover a growing cash shortfall expected to go from $1.1 billion in FY 18 to $1.9 billion by FY 21.
Some Plan Bias Suits
Close to 25 percent of the 400 managers hit with layoff notices opted to revert back to their last civil-service job title, an option offered them by NYC H+H. But this newspaper has learned that several terminated managers believe they were the victims of age discrimination and are seeking the advice of employment lawyers.
Among them is Jeff Wallach, 62, who was fired from his post as Assistant Director of Staff Development and Training in the Department of Behavioral Health at Kings County Hospital. “When I saw the list of names, it seemed it was all senior people in their 50s, 60s and older,” Mr. Wallach said in a phone interview. “I was making $100,200 a year and you got to wonder if this is not age discrimination. Did they just go after the people making the most money?”
Compounding the damage, Mr. Wallach said, his health-care coverage appears to have been terminated even though he followed the instructions he got from the city to make sure he and his family had continuity of care once he put in his retirement papers last month.
“The city says the papers went in but GHI says they have no record of me being reinstated,” he said. As a consequence, he and his family had to put on hold maintenance medications they purchase monthly, pending a resolution.
In announcing the roughly 10-percent cut to the agency’s 4,000-manager workforce, NYC H+H said the layoffs were aimed at bringing costs in line with industry standards that emphasize hands-on patient care and reducing the bureaucracy.
“Today we’ve implemented a difficult but necessary action to help build a stronger, more-agile, and more-stable public-health-care delivery system,” Mr. Brezenoff said in a statement. “By restructuring and reducing unnecessary layers of management, we can better direct resources where we need them most—at the front line of patient care. There will be no impact on services or patient care, quality, or safety. Finding efficiencies is a smart, responsible business practice, and the only way we can sustain our health system that serves the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”
Expect $60M Savings
NYC H+H estimates the layoffs will produce $60 million in personnel savings in Fiscal Year 2018. According to system officials speaking on background, the latest moves will reduce the layers of management from six down to four, which they say is in line with the industry standard. The layoffs came after a review of the system’s managerial workforce that factored in patient volume, size of the facility, and the need to shift the entire enterprise from a hospital-centric organization to a health system focused on wellness, prevention, and outpatient care.
Mr. Wallach was responsible for training new employees on core competencies, like how to de-escalate quarrels with an increasingly-agitated patient. He presided over the hospital’s Master’s of Social Work internship program, inspected his unit’s physical plant and also, in the last few weeks before he was let go, saw the patients of a psychologist who was on medical leave.
“I really loved working there,” said Mr. Wallach, who served at Kings County for almost 37 years. His last civil-service title was as a Social Worker Level 5, which he held up until 2007 when he was promoted into management. Mr. Wallach said he was proudest of his role in helping to turn around Kings County’s psychiatric unit, which back in 2010 was so notorious for abusing psychiatric patients that the city had to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice committing to make major reforms.
In 2008, the case of a mentally-ill woman who went unattended for 24 hours in the emergency room of Kings County before she collapsed and died made headlines and galvanized both local and Federal officials to take action. Surveillance video, which was released only after the New York Civil Liberties Union went to court to force its release, captured Esmin Green, 49, lying on the floor for an hour before the staff noticed. The tape showed that a hospital guard and another staff member saw Ms. Green’s body on the floor and failed to help her.
‘We Brought the Reforms’
Earlier this year, United States Attorney Robert L. Capers told the Federal Judge overseeing the consent decree that the hospital was in “substantial compliance” with the 2010 consent judgment between the United States and the City of New York. “This office takes great pride in the transformation of the Kings County Hospital Center’s Behavioral Health Service and the dramatic improvements in patient care that have resulted from our collaboration with the city,” Mr. Capers said.
“A lot of us who were let go were the change agents that brought that place back from the brink and made it a center of excellence,” Mr. Wallach said. “And on my last day, this is how it went with Human Resources: ‘Your line has been eliminated. You are terminated. Give me your ID card’ and that was it. There was no ‘thanks for your decades of service’ nor anything like that.”
Stuart Eber, the president of the Managerial Employees Association, which advocates for the city’s 25,000 managers but can’t negotiate for them, said other laid-off managers echoed his concerns.
“We heard from a few members who believe their hospitals terminated them based on their age, not on their function,” Mr. Eber wrote in an e-mail. “Even though they are no longer paying MEA dues, our counsel—Stuart Salles—is willing to talk to them at no cost and refer them to attorneys with the experience and expertise in these issues.”
‘Came After Unprotected’
Mike Winfield is 63 and was an IT manager for Kings County. He said that during the years he was at the facility, he dramatically reduced the number of pending-work tickets from 400 a day to just 30. “What really hurts is that they came after the unprotected people, and I turn 64 in September,” he said in a phone interview. “I am sending out résumés, but once they see my age, they stop calling.”
“NYC Health + Hospitals recognizes and is sensitive to the very real human impact these difficult, but necessary decisions have on affected individuals,” the agency said in a statement. “While non-union management positions were eliminated to improve the health system’s performance, the health system took every step to ensure these separations were done with dignity and compassion. Affected employees were offered a variety of in-person and online support services to help them in the next phase of their careers. Support services included a dedicated hotline for individuals with questions about insurance, retirement, accessing a career coach, résumé consultations and various workshops available in-person and online.”
Sources in H+H leadership said that before the layoff encounters, “human resources directors and CEOs at each hospital participated in workshops and were given educational tools to help them facilitate the meetings.” The layoff program also included a dedicated hotline and “feedback was solicited from affected employees. While small in numbers, respondents generally said they felt supported, management sources said.
Making a case for age discrimination is not that easy, according to Josh Weiner, co-chair of the Employer and Labor Group at Budd Larner, PC. “It is not unusual for a company to target higher-paid employees when conducting a layoff, and since salary is many times a function of seniority, the older employees get the short end of the stick. Unfortunately for those employees, laying off someone based on an individual factor such as pension status [or] seniority that is empirically correlated with age does not necessarily constitute age discrimination,” he wrote in an email. “The affected employees would have to make an additional showing of age-related animus in order to establish a case of age discrimination.”
Yetta Kurland, a labor lawyer who specializes in discrimination cases, is consulting with several of the managers who were terminated. “The mass layoffs at H+H, a system serving most of New York’s uninsured and underserved, is a troubling indicator of the state of health care in New York City. The system serves millions of New Yorkers, yet continues to amass billions of dollars of debt. These mass layoffs do not solve the real problem,” she wrote in response to a query. “Instead they seem a panicked reaction, the result of which only makes our health-care system more vulnerable by targeting and eliminating veteran health-care workers with decades of experience serving New Yorkers.”
She continued, “Further, it creates significant liability and additional costs by exposing H+H to improper- and wrongful-termination claims by these employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 as well as state and local laws.”
The layoffs prompted City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, who chairs the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, to call for developing a standard severance package, with prescribed notice, across municipal government whenever a manager was being dismissed not for sub-par performance but due to fiscal reasons. “We want to make sure that all workers, whether they are represented or not by a union, are treated with dignity and respect,” he said in a phone interview.
He said that in his analysis of workforce development trends in both the public- and private-sector, white-collar managerial employees, who may have once been insulated from layoffs were increasingly more vulnerable to outsourcing and downsizing. “These changes are real and you can’t escape them,” he said, referring to information-technology innovations.
Mr. Wallach said the layoff showed the importance of managers being represented by a union. “Absolutely, we needed representation up against a bureaucracy,” he said. “Managers who are not treated appropriately need redress, which is what you get with a union.” It’s precisely their managerial status, however, that exempts them from union membership.
Safety in Unions
He said for years there had been workplace rumors that District Council 37, Communications Workers of America Local 1180 or the Organization of Staff Analysts was going to organize the managers. “I would have gone with DC 37 because that’s who I was with when I was a Social Worker,” he said.
So far, NYC H+H has not laid off any of the 36,000 public employees who are members of the Doctors Council, SEIU 1199, the New York State Nurses Association, and DC 37.