Turmoil arises at LAAN after layoff of long-time staff member

by Jessica Carreras

Concerns about the well being of the Lansing Area AIDS Network have been raised after the layoff of a senior staff member. The loss of Development Director Patrick Lombardi, who had worked with LAAN as a volunteer since 1985 and staff member since 1992, has caused an outcry from both within the organization and the community – and may even result in a legal battle.
Lombardi was notified of the layoff on Jan. 12, and his last official workday was Feb. 6. Lombardi claims that LAAN Director Jacob Distel told him that his layoff was temporary, and that he could return to work on May 4. The date, however, was not confirmed in writing, nor does Distel confirm it at this time.
"Apparently, I was the only staff person at LAAN who was required to experience any layoff or other financial loss as the result of this management decision," Lombardi said. "No one else was laid off, and no one else had to accept any reduction in pay or benefits because of alleged financial issues at LAAN."
Distel confirmed that, and added that the organization is in good financial health overall and has experienced no losses in programming, staff or salary of employees.
According to Distel, Lombardi's layoff was "not at all based on his performance," but instead was the direct result of a loss in income from fundraising and discretionary money. Distel said that Lombardi's job was the only one affected by this loss, as all other positions within the organization are funded by grants, except Distel's, which is funded partially by grant dollars and partially by fundraised income.
Tax forms from the organization from 2004 through 2006 show that LAAN's revenue decreased from $831,629 in 2004 to $769,429 in 2006. Moreover, while increases in grant funding and fundraising dollars offset some of the losses, revenue from donations dropped dramatically over the three year period – from $587,895 in 2004 to $216,482 in 2006.
LAAN's two major fundraisers are the Lansing AIDS Walk and their annual Red Ribbon Gala, which Distel said did not bring in the amount of funding they hoped for in recent years. "The bottom line is that we determined that we could no longer continue with a full-time fund developer, so the decision was made at that point to lay Patrick off," Distel said. "And that's all this is about."
Lombardi's belief is that the layoff was not handled according to set procedure. "Although LAAN has a plan published in its employee handbook for reduction in force and lay off based on seniority and other factors," he explained, "that plan was not used in my case."
Lombardi was the longest standing staff member of LAAN, and it was the belief of some that he could have been placed temporarily into a different position instead of being let go. Distel disagrees. "The majority of staff are case managers, degreed individuals who are social workers or are certified prevention people," Distel said. "So there was really no other position that he could move into, nor did he indicate that he wanted to."
Lombardi retorted that no option for taking a different position in the organization was ever offered to him.
Lombardi has confirmed that he has hired a lawyer. Though no litigation has been set as of yet, Lombardi's lawyer has contacted Distel expressing his client's concerns.
Distel said that he hopes the matter can be settled without going to court.
The handling of the layoff, as well as other issues surrounding management of the organization, have some insiders worried about the health of LAAN, and about Distel's ability to run the organization.
According to a source close to the organization who wished to remain anonymous, there have been no staff evaluations in five years, and a client survey has not been conducted in at least three years.
Distel denied comment on that issue.
Other concerns raised by the anonymous source revolve around the financial stability of the organization, including the ability of the organization to withstand a legal settlement, should Lombardi's case come to that point.

Distel maintains that the organization is currently in good financial standing.
The source added that talks are in the works to have LAAN evaluated. The evaluation would look at the work of Distel and all employees, as well as the functionality of the organization and the opinions of clientele as to the services they receive. The evaluation could happen as soon as March.
Distel, Lombardi and others have all stressed that the importance of LAAN and its contributions to HIV-positive members of the community remain constant despite current internal issues.
"I feel so grateful to the thousands of volunteers, community groups, donors and clients who have supported LAAN over the last two decades," Lombardi said, "and to the dedicated staff members with whom I have worked over these many years."
Lombardi added that he hopes to return to work with LAAN in the future, although Distel indicated that the organization is currently working on a severance package.
"I have a continuing deep and abiding regard for LAAN, and I remain humbled by the many wonderful people who have touched my life and by the countless lessons I have learned about love, life and loss through my work," Lombardi went on to say. "I am hopeful that I will be able to return to LAAN to continue to work towards the goals of that organization."

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