A major shakeup at senior-housing community Stevenson House has resulted in the dismissal of its longtime executive director and several other staff members.
Executive Director Thomas Pamilla was given 15 minutes of notice that his position had been terminated after the board of directors hired an outside management agency to run the facility, which provides low-income housing to some of Palo Alto's neediest seniors, he confirmed on Thursday.
Board members allegedly told Pamilla that the new management, The John Stewart Company, a San Francisco-based corporation, "won't accept you" as the reason for his dismissal, he said.
Pamilla's swift exit is part of sweeping staffing changes since the board elected to hire the management company to run the Charleston Road facility, which has 120 units. The movement toward letting outside management companies lower the ax on longtime employees in favor of lower wages or reduced benefits is a growing trend, a labor attorney said.
Persons who are not employed at Stevenson House contacted the Palo Alto Weekly with concerns regarding the seniors' welfare after learning of reported dismissal of much of the staff, many of whom worked for Stevenson House for a decade or longer.
Reached at his home, Pamilla confirmed the reports. He said that some of the dismissals occurred after a temporary employment agency found that five or six employees had discrepancies on their Homeland Security Employment Eligibility Verification forms, or I-9s, such as nonconforming Social Security numbers. Those employees were given until Feb. 18 to contest the findings or to show proof of their eligibility to work, or they would be terminated, but they were dismissed instead in early February. Those staff members held maintenance and kitchen positions, he said. Pamilla said he was not one of the employees with an I-9 issue.
But more heads have rolled, he said.
"It was announced just before Christmas that as of Jan. 1 the entire staff would no longer be working for Stevenson House. All employees would only work for (a temporary employment agency)," Pamilla said.
Employees were also informed that no provisions had been made to preserve their health care benefits, although the board would look into how to potentially mitigate that loss, perhaps with employees paying part of the costs, he said.
Stevenson House's 990 nonprofit tax-exemption filing for 2013 shows the organization remains in the black under Pamilla. The organization had $1.8 million in gross receipts, with net assets of $2.1 million.
Although its revenue less expenses dropped from $362,521 in 2011 to $92,233 in fiscal year 2012-13, the drop was largely due to a difference in public support, which decreased from $1.1 million in 2011 to nearly $970,000 in 2012. But the 2012 figure still far surpassed support it received in the previous three years prior to 2011, which was in the high-$600,000 range for 2008 and 2009, according to the exemption filing.
A 2013 independent auditor's report by Holden & Company also did not find any malfeasance or "deficiency in internal control over financial reporting" or any "material weakness."
Pamilla said three years ago the board of directors hired a consultant to help plan a renovation project. Stevenson House is 46 years old, and the building was showing its age. The plumbing was breaking, and it became obvious that the facility needed a major overhaul, he said. The consultant, Related Companies of California, recommended the board hire a real estate broker to help it secure Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Tax Exempt Bonds, which it sought as part of the $36.8 million financing. The board hired John Stewart Company to guide them with the tax credits, and eventually as a broker, Pamilla said.
After John Stewart was hired, in November or December 2014 Pamilla was no longer invited to executive committee meetings, he said. He was told that John Stewart was being signed on as managing agent for two years. But that changed before Christmas, when he learned that the company would be hired permanently.
On Feb. 9, three board members came into Pamilla's office and told him he was on a paid leave of absence, without explanation. When he returned on Feb. 18, he was informed he was being let go immediately. He was not given a reason other than the management company told the board they did not need an executive director, he said.
"I feel very bad that I was told to leave so many vulnerable seniors without the opportunity to say farewell. I feel even worse that they might not receive the personal attention that they need and deserve," he said in an email provided by a source.
Before he came to Stevenson House, Pamilla spent 13 years as executive director of Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos. He has held managerial positions at agencies working with seniors in San Diego and New York. He said by phone he feels betrayed "in so many ways." For eight years, he built relationships with the staff and seniors, he said. But he is not so concerned about himself. The seniors are the ones he is most worried about, he said.
"I've been a social worker my whole life, and for most of that I've worked with seniors. When I came to Stevenson House, I thought I'd see a lot of people in wheelchairs or with walkers. But the biggest issues were the mental health issues. These were people who had no place to live. I just worry if they put a bureaucrat in there who doesn't give a damn about anything but the bottom line, these people are going to be lost," he said.
Pamilla also fears the seniors will lose their emotional support.
"Picture somebody 90 years old who has an issue or has lost somebody. They are all alone. I was there seven days a week to give them a hug. I'm not sure that's happening anymore."
He also fears the seniors will lose many of the programs he helped build that gave them reach into the community, such as the intergenerational program and a Parkinson's disease group that grew from four to 45 members.
Stevenson House is also losing wonderful staff, he said.
"These were dedicated people who really cared for the seniors, and caring for the seniors was a passion. It wasn't about the money," he said.
Board President Patrick O'Regan, Vice President Bob Wachs, other board members and representatives from John Stewart Company did not return requests for comment. But in a Feb. 11 letter to residents, O'Regan confirmed the management transfer.
"The reasons for the changes are varied and are not disclosed to maintain the confidentiality of the individuals involved.
"The board is fully committed to maintain, or improve, the level of support of you, the residents of Stevenson House," he wrote. The changes would be discussed at the March 9 residents' meeting, he said.
Carole Vigne, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco, said that switching to management companies, dismissals of staff, reducing or eliminating benefits, and hiring back formerly full-time workers to part-time or temporary positions are becoming more commonplace practices. And employees have little or no protection.
Generally speaking, California is an "at-will employment" state, where anyone can be terminated at any time unless they are part of a union with collective bargaining, she said. But employees can sue if everyone who is let go is over a certain age or if workers who are coming together asking for benefits or rights are terminated in retaliation, for example, she said.
"But those cases are backed by fact. Many cases are difficult to prove," she said.
This past week Vigne met with a group of warehouse workers who were let go; at least one of them has since been rehired through a staffing company, she said.
The labyrinth of companies involved in managing an organization can be perplexing.
"So much of low-wage industries are mazes of entities. There is one company on the application form, another on the paycheck and another on the disciplinary warnings," she said.