Updated, 2:25 a.m., Nov. 5, complete story
NORWALK, Conn. – The atmosphere was tense Monday evening as about 50 people gathered at the home base of an embattled South Norwalk anti-poverty agency trying to find out why, once again, they could not get their paychecks.
Suspicions ran rampant among the group of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) employees in a crowded vestibule at 98 South Main St. as a woman circulated among them, asking them to sign their names on a piece of paper. She repeatedly told them that she had been asked to get names, but not told why.
The employees dashed to the door – cars were gone, they said. Asking them to sign their names had been a diversion they said, giving NEON interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson a chance to escape, they said.
Stephenson had not left the building. She met with them about 20 minutes later and apologized for the situation. It was out of NEON’s control, she said.
The employees – none of whom were willing to be identified — were told there was a problem printing the checks.
“That’s exactly the same thing she said the first time this happened,” an employee said.
Earlier, an employee angrily knocked on the door of the room where the checks were allegedly being printed. It did not open. Then a woman called down from upstairs, saying that she had been told that efforts to get technical support from ADP had failed.
Staff members were not answering the phone, employees said, at about 5:30 p.m. NancyOnNorwalk commenters alerted this reporter to the situation.
The confusion comes 12 days after NEON’s Head Start program was suspended by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which assigned Community Development Institute (CDI) to take over. Stephenson assured parents that childcare would be offered, that she would get the funding.
Many of the employees who were waiting for checks were Head Start employees.
“If they didn’t have the money for us, why did they have us come back to work?” one said.
“If they care so much, give up the program,” one said, in reference to NEON’s resistance to CDI’s attempt to take over Head Start.
Stephenson said last week that CDI and NEON were working out the details of a Memorandum of Understanding that would allow the two agencies to share space at the Ben Franklin Center and at Nathaniel Ely School. NEON runs non-Head Start programs at the facilities.
NEON Communications Director Scott Harris said Monday that an agreement might be worked out within the week.
A recording at the phone number set up as a CDI hotline for Head Start parents said Monday afternoon that CDI had not had meetings or contact with NEON Saturday, but progress had been made with licensing. An updated message said later that CDI had not received information on a start date.
“They’re up there being nasty like we owe them money,” said one employee on her way out the door. She said the employees of a NEON halfway house would not be paid until Wednesday.
“Another story,” one employee said, derisively.
NEON’s state contracts to run halfway houses for the Department of Corrections were recently canceled.
Other employees said their payday had been moved to Monday. They protested. “If you switch payroll to Monday, you only get two checks in the month of November,” one said.
The latest NEON is allowed to legally issue paychecks is Friday, employees said. NEON is violating its contract with its employees, they said, therefore they didn’t have to abide by the contract either.
A female employee said they had been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement last Thursday. That was evidence, she said, that management knew last Thursday that the employees would not get paid on Monday.
Some had signed the confidentiality agreement, some had not, she said. She had not, and pointedly said there was a line at the bottom of the agreement that said it was voluntary.
Another employee said she had called ADP Payroll Services on Thursday and had been told that the checks had been processed.
“This is just ridiculous,” she said. “We shouldn’t be going through this.”
“She’s lying to the parents and she’s lying to the staff,” another said.
Most employees came to NEON’s headquarters at around 5 p.m. One said 3:30 p.m. A woman had driven down from Bridgeport to get her paycheck at 3 p.m. – the time a memo they had been given said they would get their paychecks, they said.
Stephenson had emerged from the seclusion of her office at about 5:30, breezily reassuring employees in the hallway.
“It’s a little glitch,” Stephenson she said. “You’ll see. Before it was Bank of America. Now it’s Citibank.”
An employee told her he was supposed to be at work in Trumbull at 6 p.m. He had no gas in his car, no money in his pocket, he said.
The employees said Stephenson is lying.
“When she says, ‘With that being said’ she’s lying. I think she took a class in manipulating people. Well guess what? It’s not working.”
Harris expressed faith in the story about the problem with printing checks.
“They’re trying to print them right now,” he said, about an hour before most employees left without checks. “That’s what I was told and that’s what I believe. When you get your checks, I think you’ll see there’s a change in the banks.”
One employee said the staff are members of the community, who need the money. She wants NEON to continue, she said. “I want it to get fixed because there is so much good stuff going on here, really important stuff,” she said.
One employee said he had had confrontations with Stephenson. He had been told he was lucky to have a job, that he could be fired, he said.
He referred to the situation as “genocidal austerity,” and expressed frustration that top management had gotten significant raises while the Head Start staff was “demoted, degraded and ostracized.”
Stephenson told him to set up an appointment, he said, which he had been trying to do for three months.
“I really feel there is too much malfeasance going on and we are being run by inept, incompetent leaders,” he said. “They come to meetings late. They don’t answer questions, they are rude, they are unjust. It is now the difference between j-u-s-t-i-c-e and j-u-s-t u-s.”
NORWALK, Conn. — Things are getting tense at NEON headquarters in South Norwalk.
At 7:35 p.m., employees still had not been paid and were in the lobby, demanding answers — and pay — from NEON staff.
Reporter Nancy Guenther Chapman is there, talking with unhappy employees. Management is refusing to comment, and told the crowd that they will not address the workers if the reporter remains in the building. She has stepped outside.
We will update.