Some employees finding work with Sweetser, get promise of back pay

LEWISTON – Tuesday morning, Neal Parker showed up for work at Richardson Hollow.

No one had told him the mental health agency was closing. No one had told him Sweetser, a Saco-based agency, planned to take its clients. No one had told him he was out of a job.

He found out from a co-worker when he walked through the door.

“I feel incredibly betrayed. Incredibly betrayed by (founder and CEO) Linda Hertell in particular,” Parker said.

A couple of hours later, stunned and angry but trying to recover, Parker had a job interview with Sweetser.

That agency officially took over Richardson Hollow’s clients Tuesday afternoon. It’s taking employees, as well.

“We’re hoping that they’re all coming over to see us today,” said Sweetser spokeswoman Cindy Fagan on Tuesday.

But while jobs are available and back pay has been promised, questions remain – like when will employees get all the money they’re owed and exactly why did the company go under?

Parker, who worked for Richardson Hollow nearly eight years, has a question of his own.

“I really would like to see her (Hertell) and ask her how well she’s sleeping at night,” he said.

The red flags were there for months.

Paychecks ran late and workers weren’t fully reimbursed for mileage. Top managers were laid off. The state requested an audit of the company’s books, questioning its accounting structure.

Then, late one Friday at the end of August, Richardson Hollow called an emergency meeting. Workers in the “daily living support services” program were given an ultimatum: give up your health insurance, vacation time and other benefits or quit.

At the time, Hertell said 45 employees were affected. Parker said it was more like 180.

Since that meeting, Richardson Hollow continued to struggle.

Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the company has routinely asked for “interim payments,” or advances on state money for client care, in order to make its payroll.

Two weeks ago, the company said it was financially stable and didn’t need the help anymore.

Then, a week later, it asked for another advance.

“We granted it to them so that their staff would not walk off the job and our clients could keep getting services. But we said to them there will be no further interim payments,” Harvey said.

This week, Harvey said, Richardson Hollow couldn’t make payroll again. The state refused to bail it out.

Hertell declined to comment Tuesday, referring queries to her business consultant, John Turner.

Turner had never heard of the advances. He said DHHS stopped paying Richardson Hollow because the company owed the department from overpayments it received a couple of years ago when state reimbursements were estimated.

Whatever the reason, the company’s financial problems grew. Fearing the worst, DHS started looking for other agencies to take the clients it had at Richardson Hollow.

Before the state could step in, Richardson Hollow struck a deal with Sweetser. The agency would take Richardson Hollow’s 1,000 clients and lease whatever former-Richardson Hollow office space it wanted. In turn, Richardson Hollow would walk away.

Turner said the company had considered two agencies, but it chose Sweetser because it already had the required licenses. There would be no need to wait.

“We were under the gun,” he said. “Payroll was due today.”

Money and jobs

Some employees got an e-mail Monday telling them they were out of a job. Others, like Parker, didn’t find out until they showed up for work Tuesday.

Turner said they couldn’t notify workers earlier.

“Up until 11 o’clock (Monday) morning, we didn’t have a deal,” he said. “And, you know, it was so uncertain that we didn’t want to make a commitment. And the confidentiality factors. Just a whole bunch of things that come into play.”

But as the company’s 130 workers learned they were out of a job, they also learned Sweetser wanted them. On Tuesday, Sweetser set up interviews at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston for all Richardson Hollow employees, whether they lost their jobs this week or left earlier.

About 100 people showed up. Parker was one of them.

“Sweetser’s made a nice offer to me today, so I’m a little better than I was this morning,” he said. “A little less angry.”

Sweetser has promised to pay workers whatever they were getting at Richardson Hollow. However, the details are murky.

Parker, for example, said he took a $2 an hour pay cut last week when Richardson Hollow shut down the program he was working in and he shifted to a different position. He was also approved for a 4 percent raise nine months ago, but never received it.

He’s unsure which pay grade Sweetser will accept.

Fagan, Sweetser’s spokeswoman, said her company also isn’t sure whether it will offer benefits to those employees who lost them three weeks ago.

“We will have to review that,” she said. “We aren’t making any promises right now.”

Of the 100 people who interviewed Tuesday, 60 were direct care workers and 15 were office/administrative personnel. All were hired.

The remaining 25 workers were administrators and management. Sweetser will decide about them by Friday.

Turner said Richardson Hollow will also pay employees the money they’re owed, including this week’s paycheck. But those details are murky as well.

Checks will likely be a few days late. Back pay and mileage reimbursements will come. Eventually.

“We’re working on finding ways to fund the travel expenses,” Turner said.

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