Labor board finds merit for accusations against Howard Brown

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A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board has found merit to allege that Howard Brown Health engaged in unfair labor practices over the past year — news that comes more than six months after the health center laid off workers.

The Illinois Nurses Association filed a number of charges against Howard Brown Health with Region 13 of the National Labor Relations Board after tussling with the health center over jobs and negotiations late last year and early this year. The negotiations involved a unit of non-nurse workers represented by the Illinois Nurses Association union, including therapists, medical assistants, greeters and coordinators, among others.

Howard Brown leaders said late last year they were facing a $12 million shortfall and offered buyouts to workers. Workers in the union, who had just started negotiating their first contract, rejected that buyout proposal, saying it would result in 100 employees losing their jobs. Howard Brown Health then cut its workforce by 16%, including by laying off 64 people, giving buyouts to 15 nonunion workers, and closing 38 union and nonunion vacant positions. Workers went on strike for several days in January.

Howard Brown Health is a federally qualified health center, meaning it receives federal dollars to help patients with low incomes. It has 11 clinics throughout the city that specialize in treating LGBTQ patients and people living with HIV.

The Region 13 director found merit or partial merit to allegations in eight unfair labor practice charges against Howard Brown Health, including bad faith bargaining, creating the impression of surveillance, failing to provide information, and declaring an impasse and refusing to bargain over layoffs, said Kayla Blado, a spokeswoman for the National Labor Relations Board, in an email.

The regional office will now seek a settlement between Howard Brown Health and the Illinois Nurses Association. That settlement will seek to “make whole” workers who were victims of unfair labor practices, Blado said. The Illinois Nurses Association says that could include reinstating laid off employees and paying them back wages and damages.

Tristan Bock-Hughes, a senior lead organizer with the Illinois Nurses Association, said the findings are vindicating.

“It is extremely encouraging to know that an employer cannot just violate the law willy-nilly without there being repercussions,” Bock-Hughes said. “These workers provide a vital service to the Chicago queer community, and Howard Brown’s actions this past winter decimated a lot of services that the Chicago queer community depends on.”

Dozens of Howard Brown Health workers and supporters strike on Jan.  3, 2023, outside the clinic in Chicago.

Wren O’Kelley, a spokeswoman for Howard Brown Health, said Thursday it was too early to say whether the health center would accept a settlement agreement because Howard Brown Health did not yet know all the details it would include. The Labor Relations Board office told Howard Brown about the findings and settlement verbally, but Howard Brown has not yet received a formal write-up on it, she said.

“We are deeply surprised and disappointed at this finding because it has been our commitment to continuously work and negotiate in good faith with the union and all of our employees,” O’Kelley said. “Our goal has always been to recognize and respect the needs of our employees’ union and ensure our financial stability in the face of significant hardships.”

If Howard Brown doesn’t settle, the board’s regional director will issue a complaint, which will lead to a hearing with an NLRB administrative law judge, who can issue orders to Howard Brown, Blado said.

Julian Modugno, who was laid off from Howard Brown, called the findings “a huge relief.”

Modugno had been an event planner at Howard Brown for about a year when he was laid off. He was also on the bargaining committee.

“Losing my job and having given so much time fighting for a union at Howard Brown and trying to improve work conditions, to just be cast out like it was very difficult,” Modugno said.

Modugno now works for the Illinois Nurses Association as a union representative for Howard Brown workers. “It’s something we’ve been waiting to hear for a long time,” he said of the findings.

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