As a Social Service Agency Collapses, a Union Leader Worries for Its Workers

Lorraine Guest, a nurse and the president of District Council 1707. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

By RACHEL L. SWARNS

Lorraine Guest hung up the phone in her office, staggered by the news. Her bosses had given her hope that her job would be safe, that her colleagues would be safe. But now? Now, it was clear that no one was safe.

The call, on Feb. 9, was from the human resources department at FEGS Health and Human Services, one of the largest social service agencies in New York City. Minutes later, Ms. Guest and other FEGS employees were summoned to an emergency meeting where management laid it all out: New agencies were taking over their programs. There were no guarantees that they would keep their jobs.

Ms. Guest, a licensed practical nurse and the president of District Council 1707, the union that represents about 1,400 FEGS employees, felt panicked. Surely there must be a way to protect the jobs of her members.

But if there is a way, Ms. Guest has yet to find it. Last week, she was still fielding calls, texts and Facebook messages from frantic workers asking: How will I pay my rent if I lose my job? How will I feed my family? Can’t you make sure that the new agencies will hire all of us?

FEGS, which provides services to tens of thousands of poor and disabled New Yorkers, is closing all of its programs over the next few months as investigators delve into the financial troubles that led to its unexpected unraveling. And as city and state officials parcel out FEGS’s contracts to new agencies, Ms. Guest is confronting her biggest crisis as a union leader.

“I feel so powerless,” said Ms. Guest, 65, who described sleepless nights worrying about her workers. “People are calling me, crying, stressed. I really don’t have enough information to give them. We’re not getting straight answers.”

Many of us are looking for straight answers when it comes to FEGS. The 80-year-old agency, which has $202 million in multiple-year contracts with the city, said in January that it could no longer provide services after uncovering a $19.4 million shortfall and other financial problems. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating the matter, according to two people familiar with the inquiry who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss the matter.

City and state officials have identified agencies to take over more than half of FEGS’s programs, an internal FEGS document shows. Details have yet to be finalized, but some providers may assume control as early as March 1. Officials are still looking for homes for the rest.

And what of the FEGS workers? The nurses and caseworkers; the job counselors and instructors; the secretaries and administrators who manage and run employment programs for welfare recipients as well as counseling services, residential facilities and day programs for the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill and other vulnerable New Yorkers?

Well, some have been told that they’re out of work. Others have been offered jobs at lower salaries, which would be a considerable hardship, Ms. Guest said: More than half of her members already earn $30,000 a year or less.

But most FEGS employees, including her members who belong to Local 215, a part of District 1707, have no idea what the future holds.

“We’re just left here hanging,” said Ms. Guest, who has worked at FEGS for 25 years. “Everything’s up in the air.”

Desperate for answers, Ms. Guest has shuttled from FEGS headquarters to City Hall to Albany, urging her bosses and city and state officials to pressure agencies to hire FEGS workers when they take over FEGS contracts.

She has received sympathy, but no promises.

“We have urged agencies that are picking up the contracts to consider FEGS workers, but we can’t require it,” said David Neustadt, a spokesman for the city’s Human Resources Administration.

The crisis weighs on Ms. Guest, especially at the program for the developmentally disabled in the Bronx where she has worked for more than two decades.

Over the years, she has tended to hundreds of clients with physical and cognitive impairments. She knows them by name and has watched them age.

She worries about them, about her colleagues, about her own prospects. “I’m caught up in this, too,” said Ms. Guest, who fears she may be forced to retire if she loses her job.

By Friday, there was some good news. Larry Cary, the union’s general counsel, learned that two agencies intend to hire hundreds of FEGS workers, though the employees will have to reapply for their jobs. It remains unclear whether they will keep their current salaries and benefits.

For Ms. Guest, the news was bittersweet. If an agreement could be reached for some of her members, what would happen to the rest? And what about the nonunion employees who work for FEGS and its subsidiaries, some 3,600 in all?

Hundreds of FEGS employees have already received emails warning that layoffs could come as soon as April, she said. The clock is ticking.