CHICAGO - Hundreds of healthcare workers walked the picket line in the rain outside Howard Brown Health Clinics across Chicago on Tuesday amid a labor conflict that could impact healthcare in the LGBTQ community.
The Illinois Nurses Association says 400 workers, more than half of the total number of employees, demonstrated at several Howard Brown clinics and one Brown Elephant store, the fundraising resale shop in Oak Park, in support of 61 workers who were laid off last week in the midst of contract negotiations.
The workers are part of a group 450 employees who formed a union over the summer that’s negotiating its first contract.
Leaders with the newly formed Howard Brown Health Workers United union said the layoffs came after assurances union workers would not face layoffs. Union leadership has filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
The new union is affiliated with the Illinois Nurses Association. Nurses at Howard Brown previously unionized and work under a separate contract.
Howard Brown Health is a nonprofit health organization that serves 40,000 patients at 11 clinics around Chicago, focusing on LGBTQ adults and youth. Employees say Tuesday was the scheduled severance date, but employees were let go last Friday without warning.
Their jobs range from clinical therapists and facility management employees to retail workers who staff thrift stores that benefit the nonprofit organization.
Lindsey Martin, a therapist who worked at a health center at 4025 N. Sheridan Road, marched and chanted in the rain outside her former office Tuesday morning along with dozens of other union members.
Martin, who was laid off, said she worried about the continuation of care for clients who, after building a relationship of trust, had the bond abruptly severed because of the layoffs.
"I see people who are experiencing everything from anxiety to extreme mental health issues," she said.
Howard Brown said the layoffs of non-medical employees were part of a plan to close a $12 million revenue shortfall while maintaining patient services.
Wren O’Kelley, a spokesperson for Howard Brown, said in an email Tuesday morning: "We support our employees in the union and their right to express their opinion. For our patients, we are continuing services."
Union workers claim Howard Brown management had ample time to plan for the decrease in federal funding and is using the shortfall as an excuse for layoffs in an attempt to decrease the power of the new union.
Laid-off workers will receive severance pay and health insurance coverage through January.
David Ernesto Munar, President and CEO of Howard Brown Health says about a dozen executives took a 6% pay cut. There were cuts in contracts and other areas of business before the layoffs.
"After looking at every option for cost-saving measures, many which we have already started to implement, we are now taking difficult but necessary actions to reduce expenses with a reduction in workforce," Munar said.
He says the administration wants to heal the relationship with union employees going forward.
"The goal is to minimize the impact on our employees and maintain the high-quality services that our patients expect and deserve. While painful in the short term, these cost-saving measures will help ensure Howard Brown’s ability to serve our communities for decades to come."
Margo Gislain, an organizer with the Illinois Nurses Association, said she hopes the charges before the National Labor Relations Board will result in the workers’ jobs being restored with back pay.
All of the clinics remain open during the strike, scheduled to end Thursday night.
Both sides will resume negotiations Saturday.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.