News & Events

Recent News Coverage: Christmas layoffs will slow city services; Total of 42 workers sent home yesterday

By Zach Church , Staff writer

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Lawrence, Mass.—The city now has only one public health nurse to give flu vaccinations and visit tuberculosis patients.

The Department of Public Works lost seven employees – some of them plow drivers.

The public library lost seven employees, who work a total of 166 hours per week.

The already beleaguered Water Department sent 12 workers home and changed the locks at the treatment plant to protect against possible sabotage.

That was some of the impact yesterday as the city handed pink slips to 42 full and part-time employees one week before Chirstmas. Their total salaries came to more than $1.2 million per year.

"I believe our valued city employees deserve more than this lump of coal that this administration is giving them today," City Council President Patrick Blanchette said.

Layoffs may not be the last
City officials say more could lose their jobs as water and sewer rates stay stagnant and the new year begins. The council voted 6-3 late Monday to reject proposed rate hikes.

Effects of the layoffs will have an immediate and significant impact on city services and public health, employees and department heads said. Department heads pledged to do the best they can with smaller staffs.

Laid-off employees will be paid through Dec. 31, though they were required to leave work immediately yesterday. The city has scheduled a week of availability with specialists who will help people file for unemployment and search for new jobs.

Department heads met at 8 a.m. yesterday with city Personnel Director Frank Bonet, who handed out the layoff lists. Union officials also were notified of the layoffs, Bonet said.

The cutbacks hit 11 departments and included positions ranging from a city attorney earning more than $97,000 per year to a part-time library assistant making $7,800. The police and fire departments avoided layoffs, but were required to make about $250,000 in budget cuts each.

Rough road for DPW
Department of Public Works Director Frank McCann said the losses in his department will be tough to work around.

"It’s going to impact us across the board," McCann said. "We’ve taken some hits in the past years and this just compounds it. It hits my labor service especially hard. Guys that plow the streets, and they go out every day doing other (department) jobs."

School Committee member Greg Morris, a laborer for the DPW, was one of the people laid off. A Water Department filter operator employed by the city for more than 23 years was the longest-serving person who lost a job.

Twelve of the layoffs came from the Water Department, which has been plagued this year by performance problems even as the city’s new water treatment plant went into operation. Locks at the plant were changed, Bonet said. Police were to keep a presence there throughout the day and night because of concerns that a disgruntled employee could try to sabotage the water supply.

The library lost seven employees, five of them part-time.

One city nurse left
Catherine Ouellette lost her $42,000-a-year job as a city nurse. Financially, the six-year city employee said, she is stable. But she is concerned about the city Health Department, which is now down to one nurse. There were six on staff in the 1980s.

That means remaining nurse Brian Zahn is solely responsible for handling the hundreds of flu shots and four active tuberculosis cases in the city. With only one nurse, Ouellette said, the department will probably be forced to close for a short time each day as Zahn makes rounds to the TB patients and the receptionist gets a lunch break.

Even when in the office, Zahn will be essentially alone as a medical professional should an emergency occur. That raises a major safety concern, Ouellette said.

"We have a lot of needy people in this city, and from a public nurse standpoint two nurses can barely survive in here," she said. David Schildneier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, called the layoff "short-sighted" and "patently dangerous."

Clerk’s office affected
In an e-mail to Mayor Michael Sullivan, City Clerk William Maloney said his office will now be closed between 1 and 2 p.m., allowing the remaining employees a lunch break. All vacations and time off for the rest of the year have been canceled. Maloney’s letter also said layoffs will have an "adverse impact" on elections. The layoff of a temporary elections worker amounts to a 25 percent cut in staff in that area.

A staff member in the tax office who helped with elections also was laid off. Maloney said his staff would not be able to handle the 2008 presidential primary, if it were held today.

City Attorney Charles Boddy said he lost about 30 percent of his staff. He predicted things will move more slowly in his office from now on, but promised to work as efficiently as possible with the staff he has.

"It’s a blow," Boddy said. "It’s a blow to lose your workers. It’s a blow to lose people that you’ve been friendly with for years, some people that have a long history of working with the city."

Blanchette said the layoffs were a casualty of Sullivan’s "lack of genuine leadership" and said mismanagement in the city has led to a catastrophic financial situation.

"We should also look at some of our department heads and see if we can consolidate functions to save money." Specifically, Blanchette suggested consolidating the planning and community development departments.

Both the police and fire department made budget cuts to avoid joining the layoff list. In the Police Department, promotions scheduled for this month were held back.

Police are also expecting a state hiring grant to cut down on overtime costs and will begin charging community groups for detail officers employed during festivals.