Five years ago, Maxine Williams quit heroin and hard liquor. She found regular work as a cashier in the Capitol Hill Hospital dining room and rented an apartment. She got off welfare. As her income increased, she was able to buy a car and treat her three children to an occasional movie.
But the better life that Williams, 35, has struggled to build depends on her job. And now her job, like hundreds of others at the financially troubled hospital, is in jeopardy.
"If I lose my job, I lose everything," Williams said.
Medlantic Healthcare Group, which owns Capitol Hill Hospital and wants to convert it into a facility for long-term care, has notified an estimated 700 hospital workers that they could be laid off as early as Wednesday. The conversion is necessary, Medlantic spokesman Philip Schneider said, because of losses from uncompensated patient care and declining admissions of paying patients, many of whom now choose hospitals in the suburbs.
Schneider said Capitol Hill lost $5.1 million in fiscal 1990. It is one of several hospitals in the District facing multimillion-dollar deficits, and the third this year to choose mass layoffs to cut costs. Howard University Hospital laid off 281 workers and George Washington University Hospital laid off 150.
Capitol Hill's layoffs could go much higher than that because it employs about 700 people and the proposed long-term care facility would require only about 250 workers.
The Coalition to Save Capitol Hill Hospital, which includes union representatives, workers and community leaders who contend that the hospital can be financially viable, has staged demonstrations, held prayer vigils and filed a lawsuit to keep it open.
But workers like Williams are caught in the middle.
Hospital managers have urged them to look for other work. Medlantic has sponsored several job fairs to help Capitol Hill employees find other positions.
Union leaders are telling workers to remain on their jobs at the hospital to prevent a de facto closing, because Medlantic officials have said that the hospital will be shut immediately if staffing drops too low to provide adequate care for patients.
"People are worried, fearful, angry," said staff nurse Valerie Gonzalez, a coalition member and the president of the D.C. Nurses Association. "Any time I am in the hospital, people rush up and say, 'What is going on? When are we going to hear something?' "
Among those affected by the conversion are hospital workers like Aleta Wimbush, 29, an operating room liaison secretary, and Eunice Perry Brown, 81, who cleans the bathrooms and lobbies.
Brown said she works to keep from getting bored at home. But Wimbush depends on her job to pay the bills for herself and her three children, ages 6, 9 and 12. The family rents two rooms in a house in Prince George's County, sharing the kitchen, bathrooms and living room with another family.
Workers at the hospital say they will lose important benefits as well as paychecks if they are laid off. Dietary aide Mary Mingo, 35, depends on the health insurance that she has through her hospital job to cover medical expenses for herself and her two children, ages 16 and 13. Hospital workers also fear they will lose their retirement benefits, their credit union, where they can borrow money for cars and other needs, and their sick pay.
"I am trying to be as calm as possible because a lot of people here are losing it," Mingo said. "You don't know whether the hospital is going to close. You don't know if you are coming to work today or tomorrow. You don't know if the door is going to be open or closed when you get to work."
The shutdown of the hospital would have far-reaching emotional and economic implications for cafeteria worker Lydia Chappell, 62, who has worked there nearly half her life. At first she needed her paycheck to help raise her daughter. Now she relies on it to help her three grandchildren, ages 10, 16 and 19, who often stay with her in the evenings while their mother is working.
Williams, who grew up in Southeast, is trying to be optimistic while planning a no-frills Christmas for her son, Ricardo, who just turned 18, and daughters, Titeai, 15, and Monique, 10.
The family, which lives in a three-bedroom apartment overlooking Suitland Parkway, has an artificial tree that will come out of storage soon. "There won't be as many gifts as last year," Williams said, "but there will be some, even if it is no more than one gift apiece and even if I have to miss paying a bill."
Sitting at a table in the hospital dining room with several other workers, Williams tried to sort out her feelings about this latest turn in her life.
"Because I was an addict, I wasn't responsible for anything," she said. "My kids were taken from me; my family kept them until I was able to get treatment and come back to society and be responsible and help myself."
Williams said she was able to kick her addictions because she had emotional support from her family and assistance from a drug treatment program that she attended for nine months. Someone in the treatment program told her about a cashier position available at Capitol Hill Hospital.
"The job has helped me a lot, as far as staying clean, and it has made me more responsible," Williams said.
After deductions, Williams takes home about $1,040 a month. That must cover rent, a car note, insurance, utility bills, food, clothing, everything the family needs. She is a single parent with no other support.
"What are we going to do if the hospital closes?" Williams asked. "Where will we turn? They have so many people unemployed already."
She doesn't want to go back on welfare. "I did that for 10 years," Williams said. "It is time to move on. But if I have to do that for my family to survive, that is what I will do."