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Former Employee Criticizes Policy at Salvation Army

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When Knight arrived, he says, there were few formal programs — just "an AA meeting and a couple of Bible studies." He instituted group therapy sessions and formal assessments for clients; brought a mobile medical unit from Bon Secours once a week for physicals and checkups; employed part-time counselors and college interns in the facility; and worked with the state to develop release plans for men leaving prison.

Knight was fired March 31 with no prior warnings, he says. Fred Thornhill, administrator of the ARC division of the Richmond Salvation Army for three and a half years, told him that his "service was no longer needed as of that day," Knight says.

A person who answered the phone at the local ARC office referred calls to Thornhill, who was on vacation. An employee at Salvation Army's Southern Territorial Headquarters referred a reporter to a public-relations officer, who did not return calls.

Knight's firing was a surprise, he says, but he acknowledges that he and Thornhill had differences over how best to run the program. He also knew that he would receive no unemployment compensation, because his employee handbook states that the Salvation Army, as a church-related organization, is exempt from providing such benefits.

"The part that really threw me for a loop," Knight says, was when he tried later that evening to extend his insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (COBRA). COBRA is a federally created plan that allows an employee who leaves a company to continue to be covered under the company's health plan for a certain time period.

Knight learned, however, that the Salvation Army was also exempt from that law. "So as of midnight on the 31st, I had no income and no insurance," Knight says. He was paid for his unused vacation and sick leave, he says, and that was it.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor says federal law exempts religious organizations from COBRA, although church plans may elect to comply if they wish. However, there are requirements that an employer must notify employees about the status of their coverage, she says.

The benefits coordinator for the Salvation Army's Southern Territorial Headquarters confirms that the organization has no compensation plan for terminated employees. The COBRA policy is stated in the handbook and a summary of health plans is given to each employee, she says.

Knight says he was never informed of the Salvation Ary's COBRA exemption. He's moving on to do his work elsewhere, he says, but criticizes the Salvation Army for its efforts to avoid "any kind of accountability to agencies outside themselves."

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

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