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Former employees sue shuttered mental health facility over layoffs

Palm Beach Post - 10/21/2019

WEST PALM BEACH -- Two former employees of the Jerome Golden Center for Behavioral Health sued the mental health facility, claiming it violated federal labor law when it shut down and laid off most of its employees in a matter of weeks.

In seeking class-action status from the U.S. District Court on Sunday, Joyce Jones and Margaret Schnitzer say the north county mental health hospital did not give them sufficient notice as required by law.

The Golden Center filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 24 and began transferring some of its programs to other organizations with plans to stay open. But officials dashed those plans when they closed the 44-bed hospital Friday.

Jones was told on Oct. 2 that she would be laid off. Two days later, the center filed to dismiss the bankruptcy, saying it needed to be free of bankruptcy court to sell to a for-profit buyer.

Schnitzer, a nurse, hadn't worked for five days when the center's board chairman, Jimmy Miller, sent out an email on Oct. 8 notifying employees, including her, of their termination. A letter dated Oct. 7 didn't arrive until Oct. 17.

As The Palm Beach Post reported Sunday, and the lawsuit alleges, the actions may have violated the 1988 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, Act. It requires employers to give workers 60 days' notice before laying off at least 50 employees or a third of its workforce in a 30-day period.

In less than a month, the center went from having about 350 employees to no more than 20.

Ryan Barack, a Tampa-based labor lawyer who spoke to The Post before Jones and Schnitzer retained him to file the lawsuit, said Friday the circumstances sounded "problematic."

"It sounds like (the center) knew in advance that there was a problem. They can't wait for things to explode," he said.

The suit contends that the center owes terminated employees 60 days' worth of lost wages and benefits because it failed to notify them.

Miller, who has been the sole board member to speak publicly about the financial problems that forced the 50-year-old community institution into closure, declined to speak Monday.

"I don't want to talk to you right now. I have nothing to say," Miller said before hanging up on a reporter.

hmorse@pbpost.com

@mannahhorse

lramadan@pbpost.com

@luluramadan

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