Howard Brown Health, a nonprofit community health center in Chicago that is the largest provider of health and wellness care for the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV in the American Midwest, announced that it wants at least 100 employees, or about 15 dismiss. % of staff.
The layoffs were initially proposed as voluntary, but the company says “a reduction in workforce is required”, suggesting that if 100 volunteers are not found, layoffs will be mandatory.
They come at a time of high-profile attacks on queer and trans health care across the country. Jobs lost will include roles in behavioral health, health education, PrEp navigation, Covid testing and other teams. Many of the roles are filled by union members, following Howard Brown employees’ decision to form a union in August this year.
After hearing rumors of layoffs, the union raised its concerns with management and was told in a written response on November 9 that “there is no current plan or decision to lay off any union members”.
The first indication otherwise was 10 days later, on November 19. In a letter to board employees citing financial strain, Howard Brown outlined a goal “to recover $12 million in our annual operating budget” and said he would “consider all available measures” to do so. Union members said they met with management later that day, which is when the organization proposed a “voluntary severance” package of one week’s severance pay for employees to leave their jobs.
Despite Howard Brown claiming rough financial troubles, data from ProPublica shows that in 2021 the organization brought in $30 million more than it spent and that CEO David Munar earned a salary of more than $300,000.
Many employees argue that Howard Brown should cut money elsewhere before considering losing employees. They point to the construction of a new $19.5 million clinic in North Halstead, where Howard Brown already has a clinic. Union members said they are refusing to negotiate until management releases the 2022 financial books.
“As a union member, I will never accept that workers should quit their jobs if it is not necessary for the organization to stay alive,” said Margo Ginslain, a lead organizer for the Howard Brown union.
“Howard Brown refuses to show us their 2022 financial books and therefore could not convince us that these layoffs are financially necessary. We want to be able to see the organization’s finances so that we can make proposals for other budget cuts that do not involve the loss of workers.”
Several Howard Brown employees said they found the timing of the layoffs suspicious, coming only months after the organization was unified. “There’s no question in my mind that this is retaliatory,” Ginslain said, saying many of the potential cuts would affect union members, “many of whom were very involved as organizers”.
The past few years have seen widespread cuts to queer and trans health care across the country as states ban or restrict access to gender-affirming care. As the largest queer public health center in the Midwest, Howard Brown serves not only the LGBTQ+ population of Chicago, but those in surrounding states who travel to receive care.
Employees said they were already overworked and understaffed, and feared a smaller workforce would be overwhelmed and unable to provide prompt patient care. Shakia Flowers, a behavioral health provider and a member of the union’s bargaining committee representing Englewood’s 63rd Street clinic, said during her four years at Howard Brown there was always a waiting list for behavioral health treatment. The layoff strategy will cut the behavioral health team in half, leaving just four specialists to serve 30,000 annual patients.
Erik Roldan, director of marketing and communications for Howard Brown, blamed “drastic cuts in federal dollars” for what he said was a $12 million revenue gap. “Specifically, the agency’s revenue shortfall since the start of the new fiscal year July 1 comes from changes to the 340B pharmacy program,” he said.
“Since 2020, 18 pharmaceutical manufacturers – including Eli Lilly, Merck and Gilead – have limited or eliminated access to 340B-priced drugs through contract pharmacy partners, with 8 manufacturers specifically targeting FQHC contract pharmacies. These changes are putting pressure on the agency’s finances, requiring a reduction in operating expenses.”
Roldan said the organization is exploring other ways to cut expenses at the same time as layoffs, that no layoffs will take place before Jan. 1 and that they will be subject to bargaining with the union.
Howard Brown employees have planned a public protest for Saturday and are accepting solidarity donations.
“These layoffs will have a major impact on the communities we serve, which are already vulnerable,” Flowers said.
“We are talking about queer people, black and brown people, the uninsured, the impoverished. It’s so vitally important for these patients to come here and see providers they can relate to, who can understand their plight, and who can be their support system if they don’t have one.”