Amid layoffs of 60 unionized and four non-union staffers at multiple Howard Brown Health (Howard Brown), Broadway Youth Center and Brown Elephant locations across Chicago, over 400 HBH Workers United non-nurse members represented by the Illinois Nurses Association are on the final day of a planned three-day strike from Jan. 3-5.
The strikers are seeking the reinstatement of all these laid off employees.
HBH Workers United alleges in an email press release that Howard Brown management has violated the National Labor Relations Act 19 times, "including firing workers for union activity and failure to bargain in good faith."
A Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) as well as the Midwest's largest LGBTQ+ affirming healthcare provider, Howard Brown serves over 30,000 patients with their healthcare needs at 11 clinics across Chicago. Impacted departments include behavioral health, health education, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) navigation, COVID testing and other non-medical entities.
Strike locations include the Sheridan Clinic/Broadway Youth Center, Clark Clinic, Halsted Clinic, 63rd Clinic, Brown Elephant Andersonville, Brown Elephant Oak Park and the Sunnyside Howard Brown headquarters.
At the Sheridan Clinic/Broadway Youth Center and Brown Elephant Andersonville locations Jan. 4, multiple cars honked their horns in support of the striking workers as they held signs and chanted various slogans. Strikers booed the small handful of people who chose to enter the Brown Elephant store.
Affected workers received an email Dec. 30, 2022 stating, "It pains me to inform you that Howard Brown Health's financial challenges have impacted your position and we have made the difficult decision to separate employment with you effective Jan. 3rd."
HBH Workers United alleged in a Twitter post that "a therapist and union member was speaking with a patient when their call was suddenly disconnected. The worker now has no way to reach their patient. Howard Brown leadership gave workers no warning this would occur and refused to answer questions about the logistics of these layoffs."
This comes after both sides failed to reach an agreement during negotiations that HBH Workers United have said were done in bad faith.
Lotte Brewer, who was a queer family building specialist at Howard Brown until she was laid off, told Windy City Times outside of the Brown Elephant Andersonville location Jan. 4: "My job was to work with the alternative insemination program at Howard Brown which provides insemination services to LGBTQ people who are trying to become pregnant. Another person and I did the social services aspects of that care, including patient navigation and education. We helped people get in touch with family lawyers and surrogacy, fostering and adoption agencies.
"Whether an organization is for profit or non-profit, they have budgets, and I completely understand that, due to financial needs, organizations do need to make adjustments, and that sometimes includes laying people off. Where the frustration really lies is how callously they did this, how little appreciation they showed to people who have dedicated years of service, including time in a pandemic, to this organization and how much they do not realize the value of our work."
Brewer, who had worked for Howard Brown for just over two years, added that she did not receive the layoff email until after 6 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2022 via her personal email address, after she was locked out of her work email and therefore lost all communication with her patients.
She questioned Howard Brown's decision to keep its clinics, youth center and resale shops open, all the while maintaining that no services would be compromised, further asking if the organization thought that "our work did not add value, that we were not an important part of the organization … To me this feels a little bit like gaslighting from an ex. This is a part of a longer history of employees speaking up against the organization doing wrong by their patients and employees. This is just the beginning of us fighting back against that. They are blatantly lying to us and giving us mixed messages, which is unfair in any situation, especially when patient care and people's jobs are on the line."
Howard Brown patient Chris Tennant (who is also a licensed clinical social worker) speaking outside of the Sheridan Clinic/Broadway Youth Center location on Jan. 4, told WCT that they "have always valued Howard Brown's amazing access that they give to people who are really in need of services. Before these layoffs, it took me a month and a half to get PrEP bloodwork approvals from my Howard Brown provider. I have known my provider for years. She is overworked.
"I ended up going to a different place to get my bloodwork done. The services here have lapsed so much in recent years. I cannot understand why, when these are essential services for the entire community. The whole staff is overworked, and quite frankly underpaid, for what they have to deal with.
"My message to Howard Brown management is: You have a responsibility that is so foundational to providing queer healthcare services in Chicago. You have to make sure they can access affordable, accessible healthcare. If it takes me a month and a half to get my bloodwork done, that means there is a lapse in my PrEP. If there was an HIV infection that happened because of this, that is not acceptable."
According to Howard Brown spokesperson Wren O'Kelley, some patients have chosen to re-schedule their appointments when they were told of the impending strike. This message can also be found on the Howard Brown website, along with a Dec. 30, 2022 blog post from Howard Brown CEO and President David Ernesto Munar informing the public of management's reasons for the impending layoffs.
In an email statement to Windy City Times, Munar said, "We support our employees in the union and their right to express their opinion. For our patients, we are continuing services. Howard Brown Health is confident that no labor laws were violated. We have not been contacted by the assigned agent of the National Labor Relations Board regarding alleged charges filed by the union. Our decision to move forward with a workforce reduction is legal and critical to address the real challenge of the unexpected revenue shortfall. Our commitment to our patients now and in the future requires us to act swiftly to stabilize the agency's budget to provide health care services to our diverse communities."
Munar added, "We were concerned by reports that a behavioral health appointment was interrupted mid-session on Friday evening. We reviewed our records for exiting behavioral health workers. There is no indication that any behavioral health appointment or session being held on a Howard Brown-issued device was interrupted on December 30th. The allegation is false."
In an attached press release, Howard Brown said "Howard Brown Health announced agency-wide actions, including a reduction in workforce, as part of an action plan to close a fiscal year $12 million revenue shortfall created by recent, severe losses in federal program funding. The plan will also help Howard Brown operate the nonprofit agency more effectively and reduce annual costs without cutting patient services … On Dec. 21, 2022, Howard Brown union representatives received the agency's last, best and final offer, which included a list of employees whose positions would be eliminated.
"Separating employees were officially alerted at the end of the day on Friday, and the agency posted an update on its labor relations page sharing the reduction with an official severance date of Jan. 3. Howard Brown is assisting outgoing staff members during their transition to future career endeavors. Departing employees will receive severance pay, health insurance coverage through January, employee assistance program access through January and career search resources. Howard Brown will also implement non-personnel cost savings and pursue revenue-generating opportunities, which address 75 percent of the shortfall for fiscal year 2023. Actions include eliminating or reducing spending, implementing leadership pay cuts and establishing efficiencies in care delivery."
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward) spearheaded a letter signed on by fellow city council members, among them Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), Janette Taylor (20th Ward), Michael Rodríguez (22nd Ward), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), Matt Martin (47th Ward) and Maria Hadden (49th Ward), to Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Deputy Commissioner Matt Richards.
In the letter, the council members expressed their concerns over interrupted communication between the mostly LGBTQ+ patients and workers due to the layoffs, and made several inquiries about CDPH's relationship with Howard Brown. Among the elected officials who have been in attendance to support the striking workers at the time of this publication were Illinois state Reps. Kelly Cassidy and Hoan Huynh, as well as Maria Hadden.
The AFL-CIO, Chicago Federation of Labor, Chicago Teachers Union, United Working Families and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson have also issued statements in support of HBH Workers United and the striking workers.
For more background, see www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Howard-Brown-Health-set-to-lay-off-15-percent-of-the-staff-union-members-respond/74437.html .