Thomas Hawkins isn’t one to give up easily or go away quietly.
He was a heroin addict for nearly three decades, but he cleaned himself up, went back to school and got a job at the very methadone clinic that helped him kick the habit.
Now, Hawkins, 54, is suing that clinic, Parkview Counseling Centers. He says Parkview illegally fired him from his $7-an-hour job after he forced the company to comply with a city ordinance that required it to pay him and his co-workers a living wage.
Detroit residents overwhelmingly approved a living-wage ordinance in 1998. The law requires companies that have a city contract, get tax breaks or grants from the city exceeding $50,000 to pay their employees a wage equal to the federal poverty level for a family of four. Today, that is $9.05 an hour with health benefits, $11.31 an hour without benefits. About a dozen other Michigan cities have living-wage laws.
Hawkins says he had worked for Parkview for about a year when he informed the chief financial officer, Sidney Fordonski, that the company was required to pay its employees a living wage. Parkview held a city contract to treat addicts and also received a city grant. The contract and grant combined were worth $550,000.
When Parkview failed to comply with the law, Hawkins filed a formal complaint with the city.
After months of wrangling with the city, Parkview agreed to pay its workers at the required living-wage rate in May 2001. Hawkins was fired in May 2002.
Hawkins’ lawsuit alleges that he was terminated because he had complained about the company’s noncompliance with the city ordinance. He is believed to be the first person in the state to sue an employer for this reason.
Dr. Richard Brown, who owns Parkview Counseling Centers, a for-profit agency, did not return phone calls from Metro Times.
Attorney Donald Scharg, who represents Parkview, says Hawkins’ termination had nothing to do with the living wage. Scharg says it involved “the time clock,” but would not elaborate.
Hawkins says he was told that he was fired for punching out another employee’s time card, which he denies doing. That employee also was fired for allegedly allowing Hawkins to punch out his time card, which the employee also denies.
There soon may be more Parkview employees out of work. Last month, Parkview decided not to renew its contract with the city. That may mean layoffs. It also means Parkview would not be subject to the living-wage law.
Parkview hired Hawkins in 1999 to test urine samples and do data entry at $7 an hour. He got no health benefits. Hawkins, who had been drug-free for three years by then, was thrilled to have the job at the Seven Mile Road clinic, which serves about 200 clients. He returned to school and became a certified drug counselor. Eventually his job duties also included counseling clients and filing medical records.
About a year after he was hired, Hawkins says he gave Fordonski a copy of the living-wage ordinance and said that the company was required to comply with it. Hawkins says that months passed with no response from Fordonski.
Hawkins says he broached the topic a second time with Fordonski, but again got no reply.
Frustrated, Hawkins filed a complaint in January 2001 with the city’s Finance Department, which monitors company compliance with the living-wage ordinance.
Joining Hawkins in complaining to the city was Virgie Haugabook, 49, who had a $7-an-hour job in Parkview’s billing department. She got no health benefits.
She and Hawkins gave their co-workers complaint forms and encouraged them to file them with the city as well; 27 of them did so.
Carolyn Abney, the city’s purchasing manager and another Finance Department employee, has handled living-wage complaints since the ordinance took effect in January 1999.
In the nearly four years since, nearly 100 complaints have been received about noncompliance. About half the workers who complained were deemed to be eligible to receive the living wage, says Abney. The others did not qualify because their employers were not city contractors or because the complainants were union members. (The city Law Department says union contracts supersede the local ordinance.)
Abney says only one company whose employees complained failed to comply with the law within a month. The exception was Parkview. Parkview did not comply with the law until five months after Hawkins and Haugabook complained to the city, according to city records.
Hawkins also complained to the city that Parkview had not paid retroactive wages. Since Parkview had had city contracts exceeding $50,000 since the ordinance took effect, it was required to make the payments retroactive. Parkview wrangled with the city over this issue another four months before it finally agreed to pay the retroactive wages, according to city records. Though the ordinance states that a business may be fined $50 for each day it violates the law, the city did not fine Parkview.
Hawkins and Haugabook assert that Parkview retaliated against them.
Haugabook, who still works at Parkview, says Fordonski overscrutinizes her work and issues her disciplinary letters.
After Hawkins filed the living-wage complaint with the city, he was written up “for alleged insubordination,” according to his lawsuit. Last spring he was suspended three days without pay “for alleged non-productivity,” his lawsuit states.
He was fired in May 2002 for allegedly punching out another employee’s time card. His lawsuit states that his living-wage activism, not the time-clock issue, was the reason he was fired.
Hawkins’ lawsuit also states that Parkview violated the Whistle-Blower’s Act, which prohibits employers from punishing workers who report lawbreakers.
Fordonski calls Hawkins’ claims “totally untrue.” Fordonski would not elaborate, but says he fired Hawkins for “all kinds of other issues.”
Scharg, Parkview’s attorney, says that Hawkins filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over his discharge, but that the NLRB determined his complaint had no merit. Hawkins appealed the NLRB’s decision, but has not received a response.
Scharg says that the other employee terminated for alleged time clock irregularities was not a living-wage complainant.
That ex-employee is Thurmond Henry, a Parkview drug counselor for 10 years. Henry, 59, counseled Hawkins when he was recovering from heroin addiction and helped him get the job at Parkview.
Henry says he didn’t file a living-wage complaint because he earned more than the living wage. He says that Fordonski accused him of letting Hawkins punch his time card for him and fired him for this. Henry denies that this happened.
He believes Fordonski fired him because he supported Hawkins’ complaints about the living-wage issue.
“Both of us were very loyal employees,” says Henry, who has been unable to get work and has lost his car since his firing.
“It really screwed up my life because I have arthritis, diabetes and hepatitis C and no insurance and am paying $200 a month for prescriptions,” says Henry.
Dr. Calvin Trent, director of Detroit’s Bureau of Substance Abuse, was surprised when Parkview chose not to renew its city contract, which it had held for three consecutive years.
“As far as I’m concerned, they have been a pretty good provider,” says Trent.
Parkview has five methadone clinics serving 1,500 patients; about 200 were covered by the Detroit contract. The $400,000 contract and $150,000 block grant Parkview had with the city was used to treat Detroit residents. The clients are being transferred to other clinics by the end of this month.
Trent says some patients may have trouble getting transportation to other clinics, but so far he has not received any complaints.
When Parkview’s annual contract expired in September, Trent offered the company a six-month renewal pact because of Parkview’s difficulty in complying with the living-wage ordinance.
“There were some problems with them and the living wage last year and they seemed to get them resolved, but we wanted to watch and see how things would go before giving them a full contract,” says Trent.
Haugabook says that the Parkview staff was surprised to learn that Parkview would not renew the city contract.
At a staff meeting last month, Haugabook says she asked if the nonrenewal had anything to do with the living wage, but her question was not answered.
Fordonski tells Metro Times: “The nonrenewal is for various reasons but none that have to do with the living wage.”
He says the Detroit clinic will not close.
“There will be layoffs, most likely. We don’t know how many,” Fordonski says. “It is yet to be determined at all the clinics.”
He would not say how much of Parkview’s budget was made up of the Detroit contract and block grant.
Fordonski did say that four of the five Parkview clinics provided services to Detroit residents. Therefore, Parkview was required to pay employees who serve Detroit residents at those clinics a living wage, he says. He also says that although the contract, which expired in September, was not renewed, employees would continue to be paid a living wage.
But that could change next year when the federal poverty level is adjusted, since a living wage is based on that figure. Fordonski says he’s not sure if Parkview wages will change accordingly.
Haugabook suspects she will be the first one laid off. But she is not that concerned. “I’ve had it with this place,” she says. “It’s not right, the way they do people here.”
As for Hawkins, he is concerned about Parkview clients who are being transferred to other clinics and will see new counselors. He knows firsthand that it’s not easy for drug addicts to make such adjustments.
If he prevails in court, Hawkins says he will use any money he is awarded to finish a computer training course.
In the meantime, he collects unemployment benefits and volunteers to talk to school kids about the dangers of drugs.
If Andrew Richner has his way, most unskilled workers will earn no more than the federal minimum wage: $5.15 an hour. Read more about living-wage ordinances and the proposed Richner bill. Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]