Whittier Street Health Center is a vital and once-beloved community institution coming apart at the seams, but don’t bother trying to tell that to the people who run it. They’re too busy congratulating themselves.
In one dizzying week last month, the center’s executive director, Frederica M. Williams, laid off 20 employees on the eve of a union vote; rehired the employees at the insistence of Mayor Martin J. Walsh; attempted to renege on rehiring the wrongfully fired health care workers; and threatened to lock the fired workers out to keep them from voting, before City Hall insisted she back down. (The employees overwhelmingly voted to join SEIU Local 1199.)
Despite this remarkable display of arrogance and incompetence, the center’s board announced late last week that the center’s headquarters will be renamed the Frederica M. Williams Building. It would be funny, if it didn’t so perfectly encapsulate the dysfunction that threatens the health care of thousands of mostly low-income residents. Maybe the board members should try talking to the staff before acting on their next great idea.
In recent weeks, Whittier employees, former employees, and patients have made no secret of their well-founded concerns about the center, which treats 30,000 patients a year. They describe a culture of fear and massive turnover that undermines effective patient care. They unionized, many of them have said, because it seemed to be the only way to be heard by management.
Sherar Andalcio is a primary-care physician who thought his dreams had come true when he accepted a job at Whittier Street in 2016. The young doctor grew up in Roxbury, as a health center patient, and was excited to return to his community.
His dream was short-lived. Williams fired him in January. Andalcio was immediately hired by Cambridge Health Alliance.
“I thought this was going to be my job for the rest of my life,” he said. “I wanted to give back to the community. This was where I envisioned being. I lasted a year and a half. That’s the norm.”
Williams has long been a confounding leader. She built a $32 million facility that is the envy of those around it, a goal that had eluded her predecessors. She has been known to charm the politicians who use Whittier Street as a backdrop for community events.
Inside the center’s walls, though, labor-management tension is nothing new. Turnover — even among doctors and nurses — has been dizzying.
The importance of the health center can hardly be overstated in a neighborhood where health centers are the primary source of medical care for most residents.
Just ask state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee grew up in a public housing development down the street. At a rally in advance of the union vote last month, he was one of the speakers.
“This was our hospital,” Sanchez told me. Of the bid to join a union, he said, “It was essentially a cry for help.”
If Williams had looked out the window of her well-appointed office that Friday morning, the day of the rally, she would have seen her support crumbling. I counted five state representatives, three city councilors, and a slew of activists, all assembled in opposition to the mass firings.
On the periphery of that crowd stood Elmer Freeman. He’s the godfather of the place, its executive director from 1981 to 1997. He was a patient for years after he retired, before leaving in disgust after Williams fired his doctor in a move he considered capricious.
“I have sympathy for them as employees because I know what they go through,” Freeman said. “This is about the relationship between the director and the employees, which has never been good.”
I asked Freeman what advice he would give Williams. He shook his head sadly, and said he is all out of advice. “I just don’t know how you come back from this.”
If the building actually needs a name, they should name it after Freeman.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.