Cut Without Cash

WWC says it cannot afford severance packages for new layoffs

On Dec. 16, Whitman-Walker Clinic, founded in 1973 as a gay men’s STD clinic and today serving a diverse population of clients while maintaining GLBT and HIV/AIDS commitments in its mission, announced that as a result of the current recession it would be closing its Northern Virginia site, ending an addiction-treatment program and laying off up to 45 staff members — about twice as many layoffs as the clinic suffered at the start of 2008.

Barbara Chinn, a clinic employee for more than 20 years and head of its Max Robinson Center in Southeast since the mid 1990s, knew she might be one of those let go. That such a cut would not include severance came as a shock.

”[WWC CEO] Don [Blanchon] made it perfectly clear that it could be anyone, but I was very surprised that there was no severance, considering [my] service,” says Chinn, who will mark her last day on the WWC payroll on New Year’s Eve. Despite that surprise, in a letter penned not long after she learned of her layoff, Chinn asked the MRC’s Community Advisory Committee to continue its work advancing the clinic and the MRC.

”I hope you will continue to offer your support and assistance to MRC and the Clinic as a whole,” she wrote, in part. ”There is much work to be done on behalf of the clients who need us.”

At least one member of that committee is not so sure he’ll be able to forgive the clinic.

”I feel like the community has been deceived,” says ABilly S. Jones-Hennin, adding that he left his chairmanship of the Mayor’s LGBT Advisory Committee and a spot on HIPS’ [Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive] board to join the MRC committee two years ago. ”The community didn’t see this coming. Certainly the Community Advisory Committee members didn’t see it coming. People are speechless, shocked.”

Jones-Hennin says he is saddened by the holiday timing of the layoffs, but more so by the lack of severance.

”I think losing Barbara is certainly going to change my perspective of how much support I want to give to Max Robinson Center or Whitman-Walker Clinic,” he says. ”I’m frustrated and angry. Right now, I want to support Barbara and Pat [Hawkins] and any other staff person being terminated without being compensated in some reasonable fashion for their years of service.”

Hawkins, the clinic’s associate executive director, also lost her job in the clinic’s latest round of cuts, and like Chinn has a fairly high community profile.

ReGina Newkirk, the clinic’s director of development, communications and community relations, says that while the layoffs are unfortunate, the clinic cannot afford to offer severance packages.

”We’re trying very hard with this layoff to put more of the burden on management, rather than on providers of client services,” says Newkirk, explaining that management cuts will be replaced in part by systems that will see more centralized leadership. For example, a service provider who may have reported to Chinn in the past will now report to a single ”director of site operations,” overseeing the clinic’s Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, MRC and Scott Harper House.

”This is an unfortunate situation,” Newkirk continues. ”Both Barbara and Pat have been with the clinic for a number of years. They’ve both had roles that involved a tremendous amount of community presence. It’s an emotionally trying time…. The problem is that we’re trying to reduce staff to weather these financial times. We had to make some hard decisions. Our primary goal was to keep the clinic in a position to provide critical services to communities in need.”

In the meantime, Chinn, 64, says she’ll be starting the new year with an eye to whatever opportunities may exist in the public or nonprofit sectors to continue the work she’s dedicated herself to for decades.

”I believe in our mission and I’m committed to it, whether I can participate directly or through other avenues.”

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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