Union busting hamstrings adoption agency
The complicated process of adopting a child was upended last year after Western New York’s largest adoption agency lost a third of its staff, an exodus triggered by what one labor attorney called the worst case of union busting she has seen.
Adoption STAR, founded in 2000 in Amherst, fired four staff members last April who were attempting to organize a union. The firings resulted in an exodus of the agency’s staff — 13 out of approximately three dozen employees. The departures included the agency’s executive director — who left a month after the firings — and an associate director.
The firings hollowed out some departments, including the one that handles adoptions of older children in foster care.
The departures rocked the agency, former employees said, causing some clients — including expectant parents and families looking to adopt — to feel left in the dark, cut off from communication with case workers and social workers.
Interviews with five current and former Adoption STAR employees, and a review of National Labor Relations Board and agency tax records, illustrate how an attempt to stop a union organizing effort impaired the agency’s adoption process. Agency officials refused interview requests, but did provide statements.
Adoption STAR facilitates direct adoptions and assists families seeking private and international adoptions. It’s regarded as the largest private adoption agency in Western New York. The nonprofit has offices in Ohio and Florida, as well as Amherst. Last year, the agency facilitated 61 adoptions in those three states.
“They’re still providing services to women and children and families [but] with a skeleton crew, with low morale [and] with their same horrible exorbitant fees,” said Moira Madden, a former employee who said she was fired for unionizing.
“We have all been reached out to by clients who were like, ‘I don’t have that supportive person to reach out to anymore. I never hear from my [case] worker. I don’t have that continuity of care.’”
A current employee added: “Adoptions take time, a lot of time, from staff for each one. And if there’s only one or two people on a team … they can’t go above and beyond like they normally would.”
The four fired employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which found sufficient merit to the charges that it ordered a hearing. Adoption STAR subsequently reached a confidential settlement with the four, agreeing in December to provide back pay.
Adoption STAR’s executive director, Zachary Fried — the adopted son of founder Michele Fried — said in a statement that the agency had no knowledge of the union campaign when it fired the four organizers.
“No employees were terminated in retaliation for joining a union,” Fried asserted.
Madden and others said they refused to sign non-disclosure agreements and are speaking out now for the first time.
“We wanted people to know that, you know, just because they’re a small employer, they really can act like they’re Starbucks or Amazon, no matter what they say,” she said.
The union organizing effort faltered after the firings. An election was held last summer, but employees said Adoption STAR challenged so many ballots that they eventually gave up.
Union organizing effort cut short
The organizing drive at Adoption STAR began in late 2021, after Carly Story gave birth to her son. She learned that while her health insurance covered her family, Adoption STAR didn’t contribute to coverage for her husband and child. When she returned from maternity leave, Adoption STAR demanded reimbursement for bills related to the birth, which wiped out two paychecks.
“For them to not contribute at all financially to the family portion of a family health care plan is just really challenging,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel really great.”
Story began relaying her concerns to Madden, who wanted to start a family of her own.
Madden had her own issues. Even though her job required her to meet regularly with expectant parents in hospital rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, Madden said Adoption STAR never provided her with an N-95 face mask. She got sick with the coronavirus three times.
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Madden and Story began compiling their concerns and speaking to colleagues. Employees in the compliance department raised concerns about low pay and joined the budding union effort.
“We basically formed an organizing committee and pretty quickly rolled into a majority,” Madden said.
By late March, the employees decided to write a letter to management outlining their concerns.
“So then this idea of unionizing came up and it was like, ‘Yeah, this would really benefit the people who actually make the agency work,’ ” Story said. “We all really loved what we were doing and everybody stayed as long as they could tolerate because of the work, not because of the agency.”
The employees never sent the letter, concluding that unionizing was a better path forward. But, several former employees said, the letter found its way to management in the midst of the organizing drive.
Management reacted swiftly. On April 6, 2022, Executive Director Michael Hill called Madden and three other employees, one by one, and fired them.
One fired employee, Jacob Craven, said that within a matter of minutes, he was cut off first from his Slack account, then his email, before receiving a phone call from Hill informing him he was fired.
Another fired employee, Maddie Dulle, said the call from Hill was short and curt.
“I let him finish and I said, ‘I have no desire to argue with you, but I would like you to cite a reason why I’m being fired. All of my reviews have been stellar.’ And the response from Michael Hill was, ‘You don’t work here anymore, I don’t owe you anything.’ “
According to Madden, a lawyer with Communications Workers of America — the union that assisted the workers — told her the firings were “the most clear retaliation for unionizing we’ve ever seen.”
Hill, according to a recording of a staff meeting held shortly after the firings, said the four employees were let go because of “a lack of perceived commitment to the agency and its best interests.”
After the firings, Hill called the remaining staff to explain what had just taken place. One employee recorded the call and shared it with Investigative Post.
On it, some employees expressed shock and dismay, others cried. Some wanted to know if the firings were related. Others asked what would happen to their caseloads.
On the tape recording, Hill acknowledged that the firings were “dramatic” and “highly unusual.” But he assured employees the firings “needed to be done,” that they were “not a knee-jerk reaction” and that the agency would rehire for the positions.
Hill also said firings were “discussed at the highest levels of the agency” and weren’t related to the agency’s finances.
Many employees, however, believed the firings were connected to the union campaign.
“This has to be about the union. What else could it be about?” said Story, who left the agency later in 2022. “My initial reaction was, ‘I’m going to quit today.’ ”
Just a month after the firings, Hill was gone, after 12 years at the agency. He now serves as executive director of Homespace Corp., a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. Some employees suspected Hill was made a “scapegoat” or “fall guy” for the firings.
Executive Director Zachary Fried, who succeeded Hill, would not agree to an interview with Investigative Post. In response to questions emailed to him, he said in a statement that the firings were not financially motivated and denied they were related to the union effort.
“We did not know about the union campaign at the time the employees in question were terminated. Nor did we know that any employee had joined a labor union at the time the employees in question were terminated,” he wrote.
Fried declined to comment on why Hill resigned shortly after the firings.
“Michael Hill’s decision to resign was his and his alone,” Fried said. “He was not pushed out, and therefore was not the ‘fall guy.’”
Hill did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The union filed complaints with the NLRB, contending Adoption STAR unlawfully fired the four employees and interfered with the union organizing effort.
Just prior to a Dec. 12 hearing before the NLRB, the agency settled with the four fired employees for an undisclosed amount.
Fried, in his statement, declined to comment on the settlement.
Ripple effect of exodus
In the weeks and months after the firings, nine other employees left the agency Both current and former employees said the 13 departures caused the agency to falter.
Adoptions have been lower in recent years — 55 in 2021 and 61 in 2022, down from a peak of 66 in 2019. Employees said the departures didn’t help.
One current employee who spoke to Investigative Post said it took up to four months to fill some of the vacant positions. They added that the firings and resignations crushed morale, and that it hasn’t improved since.
“I think most people decided to work from home and just keep their head down and figure out, personally, what their next move was,” the employee said.
After Hill resigned, several people said, the agency embarked on a “months-long” search for a new executive director. The agency ultimately chose Zachary Fried, the agency’s longtime associate director and son of founder Michele Fried.
Michele Fried, who continues as a paid consultant, didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
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Since their firings, Madden and Dulle said they’ve been contacted by clients wondering what happened, and complaining that they had little to no communication from the agency.
“I’ve had families saying, ‘I have no support,’ ” Dulle said. “I had families who were like, ‘We’re floundering.’ ”
A current employee confirmed that families in the process of adopting a child were suddenly cut off from their case workers.
“You have to think that it’s unsettling,” the employee said.
Dulle, who worked with older children in foster care, said her heart still breaks for the kids and families she wasn’t able to help.
“[Adoption STAR wasn’t] just making choices that impacted them or their staff, they were making choices that impacted the most marginalized community on this planet, and that was children who had been in foster care,” she said.
“I will turn my life around, I have support, I was able to figure it out. That 10-year-old in foster care did not have access to what I did. I saw it as such a … travesty.”