‘It was really giving us all heartaches’

Cody Francis

Rec center manages to save two employees’ jobs

Dennis Hejduk works on the maintenance staff at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center. Part of his morning duties is to clean the glass in the front doors of the facility. Shaye A. Painter | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

When Dennis Hejduk, an employee at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, found out he was going to keep his job, he didn’t say a word. He just raised his hands in the air in an act of triumph and happiness.

Hejduk and Jackie Howe, who are both individuals with disabilities, have been employed at the rec center for five years and recently found out they were to lose their jobs as a part of this year’s budget cuts.

Hejduk and Howe are employed at the rec center through Portage Industries, a subcontract labor provider.

The rec center was told to cut 10 percent of its budget, or about $390,000, this year, said Gretchen Julian, director of recreational services. On top of the budget cuts, it did not receive a grant of about $150,000 it has received in the past.

“We had to cut expenses and make up the difference somewhere,” Julian said. “We already planned on cutting building hours and student work hours, (so) it looked as if it was going to have to happen.”

However, Julian and other employees at the rec center were not ready to let Hejduk and Howe go without a fight.

“It was really giving us all heartaches,” Julian said. “The hardest thing a director has to do is lay somebody off.”

Julian got together with other employees, including Kim Rufra, associate director of recreational services, to try to find money elsewhere in the department to save Hejduk and Howe’s jobs. Hejduk and Howe’s salary combined is $20,000.

“I went to those individuals to take a look at their budget to see if there was any cushion they could utilize to keep those employees,” Rufra said. “We weren’t talking about a large amount of money here.”

“What I said to Kim Rufra is if you find 10 (thousand), I’ll find 10 (thousand),” Julian said.

A short time after their conversation, Rufra and Julian were doing a check on the numbers to see if they had cut enough additional money.

“All of a sudden the numbers started to fall together, and Kim said ‘We’ve got it, we can do it,'” Julian said.

The rec center employees had a going-away party planned for Hejduk and Howe on that morning, about an hour after the final budget check meeting.

“The final checks went down at 10, (and) the party was at 11,” Julian said. “What was going to be their going-away party quickly turned into a celebration.”

Hejduk was grateful to say the least.

“I love it here,” he said. “It was scary – I like it here a lot. I felt a lot better after I found out.”

Phil Miller, director of Portage Industries, had nothing but good things to say about the way the rec center handled the situation.

“It is just a great example of people and organizations working together for the benefit of individuals with disabilities,” he said.

Miller and Portage Industries is so pleased with the situation, Hejduk is set to accompany Miller to a statewide Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities meeting in Columbus this weekend.

“This is one of our biggest success stories,” Miller said.

Hejduk will share his story at the meeting with about 200 other attendees.

Everyone at the rec center is still proud of what they have accomplished.

“I’ve done a lot of things that are feel-good, but this is at the top,” Julian said.

Rufra had the same sentiment.

“It’s much more than coming to work and getting a paycheck, it’s part of their life and something they look forward to on daily basis,” Rufra said. “People here like seeing them and enjoy the interaction they have with those individuals. They’re kind of a fixture for us.”

When asked to repeat his reaction when he found out he was able to continue working at the rec center, Hejduk raised his hands in the air, but added words this time: “Yes! I get to keep my job, I get to keep my job.”

Contact safety reporter Cody Francis at [email protected].