Caregivers who lost jobs when Maine agency closed scramble to be paid

Posted April 06, 2016, at 5:44 p.m.
Last modified April 07, 2016, at 10:45 a.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Mental health rehabilitation worker Jacob Pelletier was driving in his car with a client on Friday afternoon when his team leader at Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates called to tell him he no longer had a job.

“She told me to lie to the client and tell them there’s an emergency, then take them home and end my day,” Pelletier said Wednesday.

Pelletier, along with nearly 200 other employees and state and local officials, had been told on March 28 that Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates would stop seeing clients on April 8, and close altogether on April 22, due to proposed state changes in reimbursement rates for MaineCare clients.

But last Friday, the company abruptly closed its doors without paying employees for hours worked and without providing state officials with information that would help them assist workers in finding new jobs.

Pelletier, who is also a medical student, said the company owes him more than $1,400 — money he doesn’t expect to see, although he said he hasn’t heard from any company representative. He’s not sure how he’ll make his car payment or pay other bills.

“They screwed us over completely,” Pelletier said. “They went from a two-week notice to a four-day notice. I was literally in Augusta listening to testimony for Section 17 hearings when I got the call.”

Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said Wednesday that complaints to the department and ongoing investigations are confidential. However, she said, “The Wage and Hour Division [of the Bureau of Labor Standards] is looking into” complaints that former Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates’ employees were not paid for work they did.

Workers who did not receive pay for hours worked could be paid for up to two weeks of back wages if the department determines the company has not paid and is not likely to pay its workers, Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz said the Department of Labor has been unable to get a list of employees from Merrymeeting because “no one has really been there to get us any information.”

With most large layoffs, such as mill closures, the department works with the employer “to help the employer understand the laws around a closure like this and follow the law so they don’t mess up and get in trouble, and so the workers are not further jeopardized.”

Without such an employee list, the department has had difficulty mailing unemployment and job search information to displaced workers.

“If they have filed for unemployment, we can run a report, but that doesn’t guarantee we’re getting everyone,” she said. “We can take [the company] to court to get in there and see the books, but it’s tidier and faster and more helpful to employees when they comply with the law.

On Friday, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony about proposed rate changes for MaineCare reimbursement that Merrymeeting owner Jim Talbott has cited as his reason for closing the company.

Pelletier criticized the proposed changes.

“They’re pushing for residential care” for clients, Pelletier said. “These people can function in society, they can pay taxes. They just need encouragement and to have someone coming in a few hours a week. They’re paying me $10, $11 an hour. That’s cheaper than putting them in the hospital.”

On Monday, the Department of Labor will hold a health care job fair from 9 a.m. to noon at Southern New Hampshire University on Tibbetts Drive. The department’s Rapid Response team will be available to provide additional information to former Merrymeeting workers.

Rabinowitz said Wednesday that more than three dozen employers have contacted the department to express interest in hiring the displaced workers. The department is not aware of any arrangement between Merrymeeting and any provider to transition clients directly, she said, but added that one company claims to have hired many former Merrymeeting employees.

Pelletier said that when the closure was first announced, workers were told to “transition clients out” of Merrymeeting to another service provider, SequelCare of Maine.

“We had forms we were to give out, when we gave them the news that they were losing services, to process their information quicker to SequelCare,” he said.

Pelletier said Wednesday that he won’t attend the fair.

“I don’t feel comfortable doing this type of work anymore,” he said. “If this is being cut, what else are they going to cut?”

He said he and other employees are considering a civil suit against Talbott.

“We’re fighting to get our wages,” he said.

CORRECTION:

A previous version listed an incorrect address for Southern New Hampshire University in Brunswick.

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