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Chapter 20: The Layoffs
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Friday, January 3, 2:00 P.M.
Fourteen department heads occupied the old-fashioned ladderback chairs around the polished mahogany conference table. Under normal circumstances this group would be relaxed, jovial, and engrossed in an exchange of badinage while waiting for the superintendent to start her meeting. But today's meeting had not been called under conditions which could be considered usual. In truth, no one could remember anything more unusual. So the normally-gregarious group sat in total silence without even exchanging a glance. Each person seemed to have found an inanimate focal point somewhere in the room and was staring at it with fixed intensity.
Mark Marlow's gaze had settled on the door which led into the superintendent's office. He wondered what she must be thinking right now. Early that morning, while Jackie Dark was still missing, she had called him from Florida. At the time he was aware of her deep concern for the missing resident but hadn't realized she was considering the early termination of her vacation. As it turned out, her taxi had arrived on campus just after noon. Mark guessed that Dr. Harriet Kimberly, with a Master's in special education and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, was deliberately delaying the start of the department head meeting because she literally didn't know what to say.
When the door finally opened, Mark instantly empathized with her situation. They had always been close, personally and professionally, in spite of the 35 years which separated them in age. Now he could see the heavy burden she carried beneath the faultless administrative aura which always surrounded her. When she took her seat, Dr. Kimberly's back was straight and her appearance impeccable. Her gaze was clear and level but Mark could sense the turmoil within.
When she spoke, her voice was pitched a shade lower than usual. "The Walnut Valley Colony has been completely evacuated in a way which I can neither understand nor explain."
Her statement was not news. Every on-duty and off-duty employee was already aware of that fact. But now that Dr. Kimberly had announced it in a special meeting of department heads, it somehow achieved substance and permanence which had been lacking earlier.
She drew an audible breath and continued. "Unfortunately, I was not privileged to observe any of the attributes of this phenomenon. At the time it occurred, I was still in the taxi, and I was dozing. As far as I can tell, only those persons who were in the presence of one of our residents actually saw or heard anything to speak of. However, I can say for an absolute fact that all residents are now missing. Missing right out of their clothes., Missing right out of any prosthetic devices they may have been wearing. Even the fillings in their teeth have been left behind!
"I've been on the phone with Dr. King in Trenton during the last half hour. He tells me that every State residential facility for persons with mental disabilities in New Jersey is in the identical situation. Vineland, Woodbridge, Woodbine, New Lisbon, Totowa, Hunterdon--they all have empty facilities. The only exceptions are a very few residents with mental ages significantly above six. We had none of those here.
"If you don't already know, you should be aware that several of our employees have been involved in the phenomenon, also. This fact seems to indicate that the force behind this act did not single out persons with disabilities as I had originally surmised."
The personnel director raised his hand.
"Mr. Bannerman, I know your question before you ask it. And the plight of our employees, including all of us in this room, does represent a major problem. One would like to assume that this situation is temporary and that the actions we are taking today can be reversed in the near future. Something tells me that will not be the case, however. So I think it is very appropriate that we focus our energies on what we are going to do with our employees. At least every indication leads me to believe that the force which has removed our residents is benign and that they are in a better state now than they were before."
Dr. Kimberly tilted her locket watch. "I see it is almost 2:30. I've called a general employees' meeting for three o'clock up in the auditorium but there are some things I want to mention before we all go up there. And I welcome any suggestions you may have."
The superintendent lifted a typed sheet from the table. "Here's what I'll be announcing at the general meeting. Those employees who have been personally stricken by the phenomenon in the loss of family members will be granted bereavement leave in the customary manner. At the end of such leave, however, they will fall under the policies and procedures listed below.
"First, all cottage aides reporting for work at three will work a full shift in their respective cottages. The personal belongings of each resident must be assembled, inventoried, and placed in a secure place. Clean state clothes should be sent back to the general clothing room and soiled things should be sent to the laundry in the usual manner.
"Second, I want all cottages scrubbed and disinfected from ceiling to floor, room by room. At this time we have no idea how this facility will be used in the future, if it ever is used again. Regardless, when we move out, it will be spotless.
"Third, I am asking the nurses and LPNs to give me a final count on controlled drugs and a total inventory of all medications and medical supplies, cottage by cottage. When all drugs have been inventoried, I want them sent to the pharmacy. All pharmacy keys will then be turned in to me.
"Fourth, I request that departments which have not been involved with direct care conduct thorough housekeeping and inventory operations as well.
"Fifth, the sheltered workshop on campus will be staffed with employees until the floor is cleared of all current subcontracts. Materials not already involved in a floor operation will be returned to the businesses with whom we have been subcontracting.
Dr. Kimberly lowered her paper and looked slowly around the room. "This next item will be of greatest interest to rank and file employees and the union reps. It's also the item which gives me the most personal pain.
"Sixth, each employee will be continued in full payroll status as long as his or her department is still meaningfully occupied in completing the tasks which I have already enumerated. However, when there is no more work in a given department, those employees will no longer report for work and will begin to draw on earned vacation and personal leave. When all earned leave has been expended, and if the State has not been able to arrange a transfer to another facility, that employee will be furloughed without pay until further notice." Dr. Kimberly paused a moment after her last statement and studied the faces of the department heads. The expressions ranged from grave to grim but no one spoke.
"Seventh, effective with the end of the PM shift, employees in all classifications and working for all departments will work a six-hour day, 9:00 A.M. till 4:00 P.M. with one hour for lunch. There will be no downward adjustment in pay."
Dr. Kimberly again placed her paper on the table, this time as a signal that her basic deactivation plan for the Walnut Valley Colony was before the administrators for their reaction.
Mark nodded his head in silent approval. No one but Dr. Harriet Kimberly could have gotten a handle on the current situation in less than two hours, probably because she did it herself and didn't create a committee. The other department heads, with nods and murmurs of assent, indicated their agreement as well.
"All right. Since we appear to have consensus on this basic plan, shall we go up to the auditorium? I think we'll find quite a few rather anxious people up there waiting to hear from us." Dr. Kimberly rose and the meeting was over.
The auditorium was fuller than Mark could remember seeing it during his years at Walnut Valley. The interior was bright and cheery with the afternoon sun streaming through the tall multi-paned windows. But the crowd was subdued and pensive. A few talked in whispers or muted voices with the majority staring at the stage where some tables and chairs had been arranged in a semicircle. Mark had often thought it was a waste for such a spacious and well-equipped auditorium to stand virtually unused month after month. This might be the last time it would be used ever.
Quietly the department heads occupied the folding chairs on stage and Dr. Kimberly stepped to a floor mike in the center. The assembled employees fell into silence. First, the superintendent explained the wide-spread nature of the phenomenal disappearance of the institution's residents and then went on to explain that a representative from each cottage and program area would present a brief eye-witness report of what had been observed at twelve noon. On the way up to the auditorium, Dr. Kimberly had asked Mark to go first and describe the combination resurrection of Jackie Dark and metamorphosis of the Cottage 4 residents.
Mark told his story in simple terms and quite tones and then sat back to listen to the observations of others. It was soon apparent that the phenomenon had followed a similar course in each instance where an employee had been in the presence of a resident at noon. The clock had stopped. All employees were frozen in a state of total immobility. And all residents were changed into glorious creatures of apparent physical and mental perfection. In every case there had been a brief display of this new-found perfection in the form of some kind of physical or mental performance. Singing, dancing oratory, acrobatics--it seemed the residents in each area had put on a different show. Without exception, the performances had been flawless.
The most important commonality of each account was obvious to all. At the end of the special performance, the beautiful creatures had risen in the air and flown right through the ceiling, always in an easterly direction. Then, as soon as the glorified bodies were out of sight the clocks started to run again and the observers were released from their paralysis.
The reports ran on for over 90 minutes but no one left the auditorium. Then Dr. Kimberly rose and presented her deactivation plan. The enormity of the personal impact on lives and livelihoods was evident on most faces but there were no outbursts and no heckling. A few quiet questions were asked to enlighten rather than badger.
All union representatives were attentive but silent.
As Mark looked down at the faces of his fellow workers he realized he was saying good-bye to many of them for the last time. He would be submitting his leave request before the end of the day and didn't plan to come back again, ever.
An hour later Mark Marlow and his Sprint were westbound on I-80, headed for Liverpool and home.
hadn't had a conscious thought of Kevin or Kellie since leaving home yesterday
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