In addition, the employees of the center have not received any severance or unemployment benefits over two months after its abrupt closing, according to former coordinator and facility manager Sebastian Beckham Nix (top photo).
The Rush Center let go its five remaining employees in June, leaving them jobless and clients of the non-profit’s Health Initiative program without its long-running services. The board claimed the coronavirus pandemic led to the closure, but problems existed long before that, Nix said, echoing one of his former co-workers who was fired amid controversy last year.
“These folks have dragged their feet for so long, never actually doing any kind of work to benefit the organization itself,” Nix told Project Q Atlanta. “The entire staff had literally begged for action of any kind from the board of directors for close to a year.”
The Rush Center’s employees unionized to address unspecified workplace issues in December. The board fired longtime employee James Parker Sheffield later that month. The board denied assertions from Sheffield and his union representative that he was fired for organizing the union effort.
The board voluntarily recognized the union in January and was in the collective bargaining process, but Nix claimed that board members never intended to follow through on it.
“If a collective bargaining agreement would have been signed between our staff and the Rush Center board, it would have immediately opened the door for both the employees of Georgia Equality and the employees of Atlanta Pride to unionize their organizations,” he said.
Georgia Equality and Atlanta Pride are tenants at the Rush Center’s facility in Candler Park along with several other LGBTQ and progressive organizations. Atlanta Pride Executive Director Jamie Fergerson sat on the board of the Rush Center. As a co-signer of the lease, Georgia Equality took over the building when the Rush Center folded.
Nix said the Rush board engaged in union-busting and consistently delayed the collective bargaining process in an effort to handicap, then shutter, the center.
“It began before voluntary recognition and was the strategy du jour for the Rush Center board of directors to bleed the organization dry,” he said. “After all, you do not have to mediate with or be accountable to any staff if the organization does not exist anymore.”
Interim leader left in the dark
The Rush Center’s longtime executive director Linda Ellis resigned in December amid allegations of mismanagement from her staff. Community activist and former state lawmaker Simone Bell (second photo) came on as interim executive director in January. Nix claimed Bell “was completely set up to fail.”
“No one in a position of power was willing to lend a hand or make sure that Simone had the full extent of information needed to help mitigate the combined issues happening within the organization,” he said.
The board also left Bell in the dark about the biggest issues facing the center when she was interviewed for and accepted the job, according to Nix. That included a fire that broke out at the facility a week before Bell was hired, causing minor damage and a temporary shutdown.
“Simone was not notified whatsoever and only learned about it when she arrived to work on her first day on the job,” Nix said.
Bell did not respond to Project Q’s request for comment about Nix’s claims. She is now a senior advisor for the Joe Biden presidential campaign in Georgia.
Employee benefits still being negotiated
The Rush Center staff did not receive severance or unemployment assistance after being let go, according to Nix.
“We have been told the organization will not be able to compensate any terminated employees due to lack of money,” he said. “The board of the Rush Center certainly did not look out for the staff’s well-being upon termination, and I do not anticipate any changes on their end.”
The staff’s union representative is still trying to work with the board to get the former employees compensated for their paid time off and other benefits over two months since the closing. Valerie Barnhart, the representative with United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1996, is also trying get them severance.
“In union world, we have something that’s a seniority buyback, it’s like an amount based on time served,” Barnhart said. “Very similar to severance but a few little differences.”
Rush Center Board Chair Sandy Hoke did not address any of Nix’s claims when asked for comment by Project Q.
“The board had to make the very difficult decision to close the Rush Center,” Hoke said in a statement. “It was not an easy decision. The board is grateful to all of the staff for their dedication and service, and we are pleased to be working with the union representatives at this time.”
“As we said in our previous statement, we hope that a new community space will emerge when the time is right,” he added.
The physical Rush Center facility will remain open. Georgia Equality took it over completely after the Rush Center folded. The lease runs through summer 2021, according to Executive Director Jeff Graham.
The Candler Park facility that later became the Phillip Rush Center was created in 2008. The center’s namesake was a longtime LGBTQ Atlanta activist who died in 2009.
The Rush Center initially housed the Health Initiative and Georgia Equality, and it later expanded to become the home of Atlanta Pride, SOJOURN, Pets Are Loving Support and other LGBTQ and progressive organizations.
The Health Initiative was founded as the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative in 1996. The organization was renamed the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative in 2004, and then the Health Initiative in 2011.The Health Initiative name was officially changed to the Rush Center in 2018 when it became a program of the facility.
Top photo courtesy Sebastian Beckham Nix, other photos by Matt Hennie
This story is made possible through a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.