Business & Tech

Whittier workers officially reinstated, set to vote in union election

CEO Frederica Williams had said the job cuts were not related to the union effort.
CEO Frederica Williams had said the job cuts were not related to the union effort. (Bill Brett for the Boston Globe/file)

The 20 workers who were suddenly laid off from Whittier Street Health Center last week, then reinstated on Sunday, only to be kicked off the property when they showed up on Monday, have been officially rehired — just in time to vote Wednesday on whether to unionize.

The terminated workers, many of whom supported the effort to join 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said the firings were an attempt to derail the union effort. Management at the Roxbury center has been conducting an aggressive antiunion campaign, employees said, requiring them to attend mandatory meetings led by outside consultants laying out a case against unionization.

Chief executive Frederica Williams said that the job cuts were due to a loss of expected grant funding and were unrelated to the union effort, though it was unclear why a loss of grants would prompt an immediate layoff of 20 workers. Williams, who made more than $461,000 in total compensation in fiscal year 2016, said she was taking a 25 percent pay cut for the remainder of the year to help make up the shortfall.

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Williams did not respond to a request for comment on the rehiring.

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If successful, the union election would create a bargaining unit of about 80 doctors, nurses, mental health workers, and other service providers. The union is planning a rally Wednesday morning as the employees return to work. Election results are expected late Wednesday night. “This is very good news for the doctors, nurses, staff, and most important – patients – at Whittier,” Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. “We are grateful for the support of the entire community who continue to stand with these workers as they advocate for quality care and a strong voice on the job.”

After the layoffs, 1199SEIU reached out to Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his staff, who stepped in over the weekend and offered to help the center apply for new grants and look into other sources of funding. Walsh said he was concerned that the program cuts caused by the job losses would hurt the community.

More than half the patients at Whittier are below the federal poverty level, and three-quarters of them are black or Latino, according to the center’s 2017 annual report.

On Sunday, Williams released a statement and sent an e-mail to the remaining staff about reinstating the workers, but when they tried to attend a staff meeting on Monday, they were barred from the property.

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On Tuesday, the terminated workers were finally contacted by Whittier and informed they could come back to work on Wednesday, although it was unclear if they would be paid for the work days they missed and what the environment would be like upon their return.

John Jewett, a doctor at the center, described the back and forth of the past few days as “whiplash.” Along with being distraught about losing their jobs, the workers were concerned for their patients, he said, at least one of whom was suicidal and went to great lengths to track down his therapist.

But the chaos and resulting attention paid to Whittier made the workers realize how much support they have in the community, Jewett said, providing a prime opportunity to improve the center’s culture of “intimidation and fear.”

“Even if we win (the vote) there’s still a lot of work to do,” Jewett said. “Now we’re in a great position to keep eyes focused on Whittier so that things really do change.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.