Sept. 4, 2003 – Fifteen nurses serving residents at two public housing communities for the elderly have been laid off by the V.I. Housing Authority, but the Human Services Department is trying to find a way to keep them on the job.
The nurses, who provide services for more than 170 residents at Whim Gardens on St. Croix and the Lucinda Millin Home on St. Thomas, were given 30 day notices on Wednesday, according to Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert.
Meanwhile, 27 temporary inspectors and clerical workers of the Motor Vehicle Bureau were given furlough notices scheduled to go into effect at the end of September. However, the Legislature on Thursday appropriated a million dollars to keep them from being laid off.
The Housing Authority was placed under federal receivership by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month. HUD receiver Donna Ayala has not been available for comment this week. On Wednesday, an administrator in Ayala's St. Thomas office referred inquiries to HUD headquarters in Washington.
In August, at its last meeting before being dissolved by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, the Housing Authority board of commissioners was told that the federal government, which funds VIHA, wanted the nurses taken off the payroll. Since then, Halbert, who was a member of that board, has been looking for ways to continue what many see as a vital service to elderly residents at the Whim and Lucinda Millin facilities.
"There are a number of residents at Lucinda Millin that need total care, and taking away the nurses would affect them adversely," Halbert said. "Many of them need to have someone to provide assistance with the medications. A lot of them are bedridden. They need to have baths and people changing their sheets and taking care of the special needs they have. They truly need the nurses to care for them."
With the help of the Office of Collective Bargaining, Halbert said, efforts are being made to keep the nurses — most of them licensed practical nurses — on the job by transferring them from VIHA to the Human Services Department. However, she said, those who choose to make the transfer will likely have to take a pay cut of $2,000 to $3,000 a year.
Halbert said LPN's working for Human Services are paid, on average, $18,000, while some VIHA nurses were drawing salaries of $20,000 to $21,000 a year.
If the transfers were made without adjusting salaries, she said, that could cause resentment among nurses now on the Human Services staff. At the same time, she said, offering less pay might prompt the VIHA nurses to take positions with other institutions. "We have a nursing shortage in the Virgin Islands at the hospitals, too, as well as our homes," she noted.
Other options to ensure continued care for elderly residents include utilizing student nurses temporarily and encouraging people now enrolled in public assistance programs to train for nursing jobs.
Because Whim Gardens and the Lucinda Millin Home are public housing residences and not nursing homes, federal authorities consider the nurses to be unauthorized service providers. HUD also objected to a mounting bill for nursing services that was supposed to be paid by the V.I. government but never was. By 2000 the bill had reached nearly $3 million, Conrad Francois, Housing Authority executive director at the time, said.
The Senate decided to intervene in the case of the 27 Motor Vehicle Bureau employees who face layoffs due to fiscal constraints. On Thursday, the Senate, meeting in full session, voted to allocate a million dollars from the interest on bond proceeds to keep them on the job.
The appropriation came in the form of an amendment to a bill allocating the territory's 2003 Community Development Block Grant funding from HUD. In calling for the funding to keep the inspection lane and office workers on the job, Sen. Lorraine Berry pointed out that the Motor Vehicle Bureau generates revenues of $9 million a year for the government.
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