Nearly seven months after workers staged a three-day strike to protest layoffs at Howard Brown Heath, federal labor relations officials have found merit or partial merit in the allegations made by union members against an LGBTQ health care center.
The union, an affiliate of the Illinois Nurses Association, claimed Howard Brown engaged in dishonest bargaining, including refusing to bargain on the layoffs, failing to provide information to the union and creating surveillance during the process.
A representative of the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board said earlier this week that the agency is now seeking a settlement between the union and Howard Brown. If an agreement cannot be reached, a hearing will occur where an administrative law judge can order “full” remedies for employees affected by the actions.
Howard Brown Health has said the layoffs, which eliminated 61 union and four non-union jobs in December, were necessary to fill an estimate. $12 million budget gap attributed to changes in pharmaceutical legislation and the end of some COVID-19 assistance programs. A three-day strike took place, bringing about 440 employees across the city to the picket line.
Shakia Flowers, a former behavioral health specialist at Howard Brown cut in the layoffs, said her initial concern was with her patients, who were left in limbo and her job fighting in bargaining sessions.
Flowers said the NLRB’s findings made her feel “vindicated” and “justified” in the union fight, but that laid-off workers needed compensation.
“I’ll be happy when they pay for their wrongdoing,” said Flowers, a Woodlawn resident. “The layoffs put me in a financial bind.”
Howard Brown spokeswoman Katie Metos said patient experience is being reported as “the best in a decade” despite layoffs and other cost-cutting measures aimed at increasing revenue by significantly reducing appointments and staffing.
Metos called the NLRB’s findings “surprising” and “disappointing.”
“It has always been our intention to bargain in good faith and protect Howard Brown’s financial viability,” Metos said.
Although Howard Brown’s leadership has heard about the NLRB’s findings, Metos said they cannot give any clarity on what will happen since they have not yet received anything in writing from the labor agency or the union regarding a new settlement.
“At this point, we are pursuing all options,” Metos said. “We will certainly look at a settlement but we can’t promise that we will because we don’t know what it says yet.”
During the layoff proposals, union leaders said they saw no evidence of the financial issues and also found listings for jobs included in the layoffs on sites like LinkedIn, which reporters were later able to confirm.
The cuts included all drug abuse case managers at the South Side locations, members of the gender-affirming youth care team and 14 of the 15 community members. In Power team, which was dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault and harassment navigate the health care and legal systems, before disbanding among the defunct cases.
Bridget Gordon, a diabetes case manager at the Howard Brown Sheridan clinic and a member of the union’s bargaining committee, said that while her staff was not directly affected – apart from one member being mistakenly laid off even after she was removed from the layoff list – it still affected her day-to-day work.
“Having fewer people at the organization means that everyone is doing multiple jobs out of sheer necessity,” said Gordon, a lifelong Chicagoan. “Even putting the legal issues aside, it speaks to how badly the layoffs were implemented.”
Gordon said there is still “a lot” to happen before the laid-off employees are “made whole,” which she expects will mostly be in the form of back pay, though she said the union wants everyone to receive reinstatement offers, even if not everyone takes them.
Gordon added that the labor dispute had “pretty much damaged” the trust between management and employees.
As for team morale, Metos said it took a hit after the layoffs and that January was “very difficult,” but that leadership is working toward being more transparent about their work to restore trust.
Metos, who uses she/they pronouns, said they understand how employees feel because they started at Howard Brown nearly eight years ago as entry-level staff.
“It was uncomfortable across all of our sites,” Metos said. “We’re trying to be honest and try to do the right thing even if it’s hard.”
Employees say they are unsure about the measures.
“If Howard Brown is serious about repairing labor relations, I think a great start would be to do their best to reach out to their former employees,” Gordon said. “Then they can work on their current team.”
While Flowers said she was able to find work in her field – albeit at less pay – she said she believed the layoffs were “absolutely retaliatory” of the union’s actions, and would not return even if offered a job back.
“Unless there is a major change in the leadership of Howard Brown, what this leadership has done to completely disregard our rights as workers, I can’t see going back there,” Flowers said. “That would be a tough decision for me.”