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Fired workers’ lawsuit claims Muskegon Family Care health clinic violated federal law

By Lynn Moore | [email protected]

MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – Recently terminated employees have filed a class action lawsuit against the Muskegon Family Care health clinic, claiming it didn’t provide them adequate notice of their job losses nor payment of unused vacation time.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Feb. 16, claims 150 full-time employees were terminated on Feb. 14 without warning.

Two former clerical support employees are named in the lawsuit that also represents “all others similarly situated.” They seek 60 days’ worth of wages and benefits as well as compensation for remaining vacation time.

The health clinic at 2201 S. Getty St. in Muskegon Heights serves an estimated 20,000 patients, most of them low-income. The mass firings led to widespread speculation about the clinic’s closing, which clinic officials officially confirmed three days later, on Monday, Feb. 17.

The closure, planned for March 31, leaves thousands of dental, medical and mental health patients scrambling to find new providers. Hackley Community Care, Public Health Muskegon County and the Department of Health and Human Services all have pledged to help displaced patients.

The Michigan State Police has launched an investigation into claims staff members embezzled from the clinic.

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The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act requires that in the event of a plant closing or mass layoff, employers must provide formal notice to employees at least 60 days prior to the effective date.

There are some exceptions, including if the layoffs are due to an unforeseen economic crisis or other business circumstance. It’s usually the employer’s burden to prove why it couldn’t provide the advance warning.

In a press release announcing the closure, clinic administrators cited “complicated financial troubles” as the reason for the employee terminations.

The clinic “will continue to serve patients” until its closure at the end of March, the press release states. The lawsuit estimates that roughly 50 employees remain employed at the clinic.

Terminated employees are suing for 60 days’ worth of wages, bonuses, accrued holiday and vacation pay, COBRA health benefits and pension and 401K contributions. They are represented by attorneys Raisner Roupinian LLP of New York City.

Muskegon Family Care operated on an approximately $20 million budget, according to its 2018 audit. Among its services are medical, dental, mental and behavior health, pharmacy and women’s care.

In 2018, it had 20,670 patients, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health. Nearly 79 percent of those patients were at or below the poverty level, and more than 13,000 were eligible for Medicaid, according to the Bureau of Primary Health.

A federal audit found “significant deficiencies” in 2017. Details were not immediately available. However, Muskegon Family Care’s own audit did not find anything significant, but rather one “material weakness” that year.

Muskegon Family Care has previously been in trouble with the federal government, which determined it had not properly tracked federal funding and failed to comply with its own bylaws from 2010-2014, according to documents obtained by the Muskegon Chronicle in 2014.

The clinic has been operated by an interim executive following the departure of former Chief Executive Officer Sheila Bridges.

A 2014 federal review of the clinic found that it failed to properly track the federal funds it receives and revealed questionable business expenses made by Bridges, according to the report obtained by the Muskegon Chronicle. Some of those expenses included stays at five-star hotels, first-class airfare and limousine accommodations.

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That same year, several staff members, including a doctor, dentists and physician assistants, wrote a letter calling for the resignation of Bridges and the board of directors.