CHICAGO – Workers at Howard Brown Health are fighting to prevent dozens of job cuts at the Midwest’s largest LGBTQ-affirming health care center.
More than 100 workers, supporters and local elected officials marched about half a mile from the health center’s administrative offices, 1025 W. Sunnyside Ave., to the home of Howard Brown Health President and CEO David Ernesto Munar on Saturday to ‘ a list of demands to deliver night.
The group is campaigning for no layoffs, a fair contract and access to the health center’s financial statements. They also want to see more providers hired to help understaffed clinics better care for thousands of patients, organizers said.
The layoffs were proposed as a voluntary severance program during a bargaining session between Howard Brown Health leaders and members of the organization’s new union, Howard Brown Health Workers United, formed in August.
Howard Brown leaders said in a statement in November that they had to cut staff as part of a broader move to improve the organization’s finances. No jobs will be affected until January 1, according to the statement.
The union did not accept the terms of the voluntary severance program, so the deal was offered to 36 non-union employees who have until Monday to accept the deal, Howard Brown leaders said.
“Howard Brown has no intention of eliminating services and is committed to ensuring that the reduction in expenses does not affect the center’s quality, culturally compassionate approach to health care,” the statement said.
Those potentially out of a job range from behavioral health providers and people who run PrEP navigation, HIV testing and STI screenings to the organization’s entire In Power team, which helps survivors of sexual harm, according to union leaders.
“These are really essential services,” said Margo Gislain, lead organizer for the union. “The management claims that services will not be interrupted, but if you cut 100 people and services will not be interrupted, it means that those who remain have to do double the work they do.”
Workers at risk of losing their jobs shared their experiences with the crowd and explained how passionate they are about continuing to provide health care services at the center.
“I fight for my job because I love this job,” said Julian Modugno, an event planner. “We want to make this place better. We want it to be somewhere we can work for the rest of our lives. We want to stay here and help our community, and we want to see this organization live up to its mission statement.”
Modugno said notice of the layoff was unexpected and sudden. His supervisors praised his work at a November meeting and told him he had a “bright future” at the organization, he said.
Ten days later, he learned his job was on the list of possible cuts, Modugno said.
“I thought I was safe,” Modugno said. “You might think you’re safe now because you’re not on the list, but you could be on it the next day. It doesn’t matter if your supervisor is happy with the work you are doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving literal lives. To the people in this office building, you are just a line in a budget.”
Medha Flores, a case manager with the center’s In Power team, said her team has faced repeated cuts despite doing essential work as one of the only organizations dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual assault in the city .
“I was left as the only consultant for three months because others left after begging for raises,” Flores said. “The In Power team are experts in this area. Other staff rely on our team when patients with these experiences are present. Our expertise is invaluable because the Venn diagram of queer people and people experiencing violence is a circle.”
Employees eligible for the voluntary separation program were offered one week’s salary per year of service, with a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of eight weeks; health care benefits until January 2023; and no challenge to unemployment claims, according to an email issued to eligible workers.
“So for the people who are laid off, they are threatened with job loss near the holidays with little or no severance pay and a month’s notice before they won’t have health care,” Gislain said. “It’s detrimental.”
Howard Brown Health is a federally qualified health center that employs several hundred people across its 12 clinics, the Broadway Youth Center and its resale stores. Howard Brown Health was founded in 1974 with a focus on serving LGBTQ people and other vulnerable communities.
Today, Howard Brown Health serves approximately 30,000 patients annually with a variety of services, including primary care, dental services, pediatric care, counseling and HIV case management, testing and outreach.
The organization has been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, giving more than 70,000 vaccinations and nearly 100,000 COVID-19 tests, Munar said.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) told the rally it was “unthinkable” that an institution “rooted in LGBTQ+ liberation” would lay off health care workers when they are most needed.
“When we see the tragedies happening every day in our community, it’s a matter of life and death,” said Sigcho Lopez. “To deny mental health services to the trans community, to members of the LGBTQ+ community, is an atrocity. We cannot allow a single dismissal.”
Ald. Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez (33rd) said she is grateful for the Howard Brown Health workers and will fight to make sure elected officials stand with them.
“The people who are asked to absorb the brunt of the trauma, of the pain that our communities are feeling right now, are the least paid, the least cared for,” Rodríguez Sanchez said. “We can’t allow that to continue because somewhere along the way we decided that we weren’t going to value that work.”
Howard Brown Health released a statement Nov. 23 saying the organization is closing a $12 million fiscal year revenue gap due to changes in the pharmaceutical industry that allow companies to take a larger share of federally negotiated savings by retaining the 340B program.
Additionally, federal COVID-19 relief funding that allowed Howard Brown Health to ramp up its testing and vaccination efforts has dried up, according to the organization.
“These changes put a strain on the agency’s finances, requiring a reduction in operating expenses,” leaders said in a statement.
Other plans to improve finances include strategies to boost revenue generated from medical visits and the implementation of a new electronic medical record, according to the statement.
But workers say they need more evidence of Howard Brown Health’s financial situation before accepting any layoffs. They questioned how the organization could struggle when it is building a new 71,000-square-foot building next to North Halsted and its tax filings show the organization brought in money in 2021.
Howard Brown Health brought in $29.4 million more than it spent in 2021, according to a 990 tax filing form. In addition, Munar earned more than $309,000 with at least nine other executives earning more than $200,000.
Union members would like to see the executive leadership team take significant pay cuts before resorting to layoffs, Gislain said.
“The union’s position is that under no circumstances will we accept the layoffs of our employees if Howard Brown cannot prove that it is financially necessary to do so,” said Gislain.
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