NORWALK, Conn. – The glow of a “miracle” dimmed quickly for two Norwalk non-profit agency board members Friday when angry employees said that they weren’t being given paychecks, even though they had checks in hand.
The checks being given to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) workers were replacements for the paychecks that bounced 17 days ago. About 16 School Readiness program workers said they wanted to be paid for the three days they had just worked. They said they had come in to work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on the condition they be paid on Friday. Those checks had not been issued due to what NEON Board Chairman Mike Berkoff described as a communications problem.
Some of the employees said they had been terminated. The checks should have included everything they were owed, they said.
Berkoff and Jack O’Dea were at NEON’s offices at 98 South Main St. at 4 p.m. to hand out paychecks to replace the worthless paychecks that were issued Nov. 5. These checks had pay stubs with a record of the hours worked on them, as opposed to the blank pay stubs issued Nov. 5.
Employees had to bring their bad checks to trade in.
“We’re swapping them out for new ones,” Berkoff said. “The people that never got checks, that are still here, we’re giving them fresh ones. There are a few checks that are floating. What we want to do is really make sure that nobody is telling us that they didn’t cash the check when they did. That’s why we’re asking to get our checks back.”
He referred to Cash-A-Check in South Norwalk, a business that cashed about $15,000 in employee paychecks only to have them returned due to insufficient funds, as a “gap” into which some checks had fallen.
Some employees had smiles on their faces as they left with checks in hand.
“I feel great,” one employee said. “I’m going to skip out.”
“This is a miracle, believe me,” O’Dea said, about the availability of funds to finance the checks.
The bad stuff hit the fan shortly after that, as five to 10 people gathered around Berkoff to complain that they weren’t being paid for the three days on Friday, as promised.
“Let us get in touch with Rev. Jackson right now,” Berkoff said. “Let us see what the issue is.”
Joey Lynn, a School Readiness worker, said she had been terminated and would have been getting an unemployment check, but came in to work when asked only not to get paid on time.
“I want my real money, that I worked for,” Lynn said. “I could have stayed home.”
She has worked for the agency for 18 years, she said, since her daughter had gone to preschool with NEON, and now her granddaughter. Lynn said she was one of the employees who had stayed until 1 a.m. Nov. 5 to get a paycheck, only to find out later that morning that the paycheck was worthless.
“I’m dedicated to my job,” she said. “I love my job. But this is too much.”
Berkoff had left the room. He came back in with what he said was good news.
“I just spoke with the Rev. Jackson,” Berkoff said. “On Wednesday the checks for the people who worked these last three days will be available. We can pay out.”
“We are not coming back, we don’t get our paychecks today then the school will be closed on Monday,” Maritza Ortiz said.
“Then the school will be closed on Monday,” Berkoff said.
“See how easy it is for them to shut down the school?” one employee said.
Isn’t that misuse of funds, one employee asked.
No, Berkoff said.
“Well, I need my money,” she said.
The laid-off employees said they were owed personal time and vacation time. That money wasn’t in their checks. They were told to come back in two weeks for additional checks.
One employee said she had been with NEON for 13 years, only to get a letter of termination in the mail. That was cold and impersonal, she said.
“I’m not going back and forth,” she said, refusing to return for another paycheck in two weeks. “You already terminated me. What’s the point?”
She said she lived in Norwalk, but the distance of returning was not the issue.
“If you are terminated you expect to get all your money, right?” she said.
Confronted in the hallway by employees a few minutes later, Berkoff said he had been in the governor’s office Friday and had met with state Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) Tuesday.
“I am spending all of my time on this and it wasn’t my doing,” he said.
He had an explanation for the snafu.
“The payroll records were never transmitted over this morning in time to cut the checks,” he said.
Transmitting the information was the responsibility of the School Readiness manager, Berkoff said. She was coming over to talk to the employees, he said.
She did, indeed, show up, but refused to talk to the press. Employees had a closed-door meeting.
Berkoff said by phone later that the situation had been worked out. The School Readiness program will be open Monday through Friday, he said.