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Howard Brown Health Workers, Protesters Blast Planned Layoffs: ‘I’m Fighting For My Job Because I Love This Work’

The health care center's leaders say they must cut jobs to help reduce costs, but union members say they want proof layoffs are financially necessary.

Julian Modugno, an events planner at Howard Brown Health at risk of being laid off, encouraged people to donate to the workers’ strike fund as dozens of people protest potential layoffs.
Kayleigh Padar/Block Club Chicago
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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 a half-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 to deliver a list of demands Saturday night. 

The group is pushing 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.

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The layoffs were proposed as a voluntary separation program during a bargaining session between Howard Brown Health leaders and the members of the organization’s new union, Howard Brown Health Workers United, which formed in August.

Howard Brown leaders said in a statement in November they need to reduce staffing as part of a broader move to improve the organization’s finances. No positions will be affected until Jan. 1, according to the statement.

The union did not accept the terms of the voluntary separation program so the deal was offered to 36 non-union employees who have until Monday to accept the agreement, Howard Brown’s leaders said.

“Howard Brown has no intention of eliminating services and is committed to ensuring the reduction in expenses do not impact the Center’s quality, culturally compassionate approach to health care,” the statement read. 

Credit: Kayleigh Padar/Block Club Chicago
More than 100 people gathered outside Howard Brown Health’s administrative offices, 1025 W. Sunnyside Ave., to urge leaders not to lay off employees.

Those potentially losing their jobs range from behavioral health providers and people who manage 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 won’t be interrupted but if you’re cutting 100 people and services won’t be interrupted, that means those who remain will have to do double the work they’re doing.”

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’m fighting for my job because I love this work,” said Julian Modugno, an events 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 abrupt. 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 potential 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 very next day. It doesn’t matter if your supervisor is happy with the work you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving literal lives. To the people in this office building, you’re just a line in a budget.” 

Credit: Kayleigh Padar/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez (33rd) speaks at the Howard Brown Health workers rally.

Mera Flores, a case manager with the center’s In Power team, said her team has repeatedly faced cuts despite doing essential work as one of the only organizations dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ sexual assault survivors in the city. 

“I was left as the only consultant for three months due to others leaving after begging for raises,” Flores said. “The In Power team are experts in this field. Other staff rely on our team when patients present with these experiences. Our expertise is invaluable because the Venn diagram of queer people and people who experience 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 through January 2023; and no challenge to unemployment claims, according to an email that went out to eligible workers.

“So for the people who get laid off, they’re getting threatened with job loss near the holidays with little to no severance pay and a month’s notice before they won’t have health care,” Gislain said. “That’s detrimental.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Howard Brown Health Clark, 6500 N. Clark St., in Rogers Park on Feb. 17, 2022.

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 shops. Howard Brown Health was founded in 1974 with a focus on serving LGBTQ people and other communities that are vulnerable.

Today, Howard Brown Health serves about 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 out more than 70,000 vaccinations and nearly 100,000 COVID-19 tests, Munar said.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said at the rally it’s “inconceivable” an institution “rooted in LGBTQ+ liberation” would lay off health care workers when they’re needed most. 

“When we see the tragedies happening in our community every day, this is a matter of life and death,” Sigcho Lopez said. “Denying mental health services to the trans community, to members of the LGBTQ+ community is an atrocity. We cannot allow a single layoff.” 

Ald. Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez (33rd) said she’s grateful for the Howard Brown Health workers and will fight to make sure elected officials stand with them. 

“The people who are asked to take on the brunt of the trauma, of the pain our communities are feeling right now, are the least paid, the least cared for,” Rodríguez Sanchez said. “We cannot allow that to continue because somewhere along the way we decided that we were not going to value that work.” 

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Howard Brown Health’s Halsted clinic at 3245 N. Halsted St. on Feb. 21, 2022.

Howard Brown Health released a statement Nov. 23 saying the organization is working to close a $12 million fiscal-year gap in revenue due to changes in the pharmaceutical industry that allow companies to keep a greater share of federally negotiated savings through the 340B program.

Additionally, federal COVID-19 relief funding that allowed Howard Brown Health to ramp up its testing and vaccination efforts has run dry, according to the organization.

“These changes are putting 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.

Credit: Kayleigh Padar/Block Club Chicago
Union members read a list of demands outside Howard Brown Health’s CEO’s house, including to stop layoffs and show the organization’s financial statements.

But workers say they need more proof of Howard Brown Health’s financial situation before accepting any layoffs. They questioned how the organization could be struggling when it’s building a new, 71,000-square-foot building along North Halsted and its tax documents 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. Additionally, Munar made more than $309,000 with at least nine other executive leaders making more than $200,000.

Union members would like to see the executive leadership team take significant pay cuts before resorting to staff layoffs, Gislain said.

“The union’s stance is under no circumstances will we accept the layoffs of our employees if Howard Brown cannot prove it is financially necessary to do so,” Gislain said.

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