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Clock runs out on Whispering Pines employees holding out for county jobs

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Almost everything is done but the cleaning.

Whispering Pines, also known as the Jefferson County Home for the Aged, is closing; the plan is to move all residents out and into brand-new facilities by Saturday.

But eight full-time employees who have spent years working at the home won’t be going with them.

Instead, they will be laid off after taking a week to clean up the aging building.

“I think it’s going to be a very emotional weekend for both staff and residents,” said Laura C. Cerow, commissioner of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services.

The county has transitioned out of the business of providing adult care, spending $5 million to help bring in a $34 million state grant to attract two private facilities with 168 skilled-nursing beds and 180 assisted-living beds to the area.

But as it has moved forward with its plans, which legislators say will provide a net increase in jobs in the community, the county has had to reduce staff at its facility. Now, with the doors at Whispering Pines shuttering in a week, staff will be cut to zero.

“The county’s position all along has been to give them as much warning as possible. ... The reality is that the county is getting out of this business,” said James A. Nabywaniec, chairman of the Board of Legislators Health and Human Services Committee.

As employees left or retired from the county, they were replaced by part-time temporary workers.

“We had 30 employees; we’ve gotten it down to seven or eight that are going to be laid off,” Mrs. Cerow said.

In November 2012, as construction on Samaritan Summit Village was nearing completion, legislators passed a budget that factored in the closing of Whispering Pines as a cost-saving measure.

At that meeting, a group of Whispering Pines employees petitioned the board to try to find places for them within the county government.

Laura L. Merle, who spoke for the group, read from a prepared statement, “What we are asking is for you to look into your departments and fill your vacancies with qualified, loyal and dedicated employees.”

The employees, who worked for the county, were paid on a union scale and received benefits based on classifications and seniority. They were also a part of the state retirement system.

According to Laurel L. Holt-Simmons, president of Jefferson County Civil Service Employees Association Local 823, these benefits, especially concerning the state pension system, were of prime concern to Whispering Pines employees.

“When they came to work here, they planned on retiring here,” Ms. Holt-Simmons said in November.

The union worked with the county to try to place employees at other jobs, and was successful, to a degree.

But with civil service exams being offered only periodically and a general trend of downsizing within the county government, the majority of employees were unable to find anything.

Many also were unwilling to take the cut in benefits that would come with transitioning to the private sector.

Employees at the home were given priority consideration if they applied to work at the new facilities: Samaritan Summit Village and Meadowbrook Terrace in Carthage.

Despite this, many of them held out hope that they would be able to find jobs that would allow them to get back into the state retirement system, Mrs. Cerow said.

By December 2012, when the facility had its last Christmas party, there only were 15 full-time county employees remaining.

Of those 15, two retired, four were able to stay with the county and one went to work at a nearby school district.

On Thursday, Ms. Holt-Simmons said that she was happy that they were able to at least do that much, and characterized the union’s dealings with the county as being “very good.”

“They’ve gone way out of their way to try to help. ... It’s been a good relationship,” Ms. Holt-Simmons said.

The county will keep the remaining eight employees on staff for an extra week to help clean up the building, then they will be out of work.

They will remain on a county call-back list for four years. In addition to their health and retirement benefits, if they return to work for the county, they will regain their accumulated sick time. After a year, they also will get their vacation time back.

“That’s an option and hopefully that will happen,” Ms. Holt-Simmons said.

Ultimately, holding out for retirement benefits may have an upside.

One of the Whispering Pines employees who has worked for the county for 30 years but couldn’t retire because she had not yet reached 55 years of age was able to stay with the county by going to work at the dog pound.

“She loves it,” Ms. Holt-Simmons said.

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