Chase Brexton Health Care, a group of community health centers that serve low-income and gay and transgender people, is experiencing worker turmoil as doctors and other medical staff seek to unionize.
About 140 employees, mostly white-collar professionals, are seeking more worker protections and a stronger say in the affairs of the Baltimore institution, which opened in 1978 as a place to treat gay men. The workers allege poor working conditions and say increased workloads threaten patient care.
Their organizing efforts led to a dispute with center administrators, and union leaders accuse Chase Brexton of firing four managers Monday in retaliation. The union alleged in a complaint filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board that the firings were part of an effort to intimidate other workers seeking to join 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Chase Brexton fired a fifth employee Thursday, union officials said.
Chase Brexton executives declined to discuss the labor dispute or the firings.
"We are fully aware of what is going on here with the union trying to come in," said Becky Frank, the company's vice president of development and marketing. "We are fully focused on continuing to provide quality patient care."
The employees are scheduled to vote Aug. 25 in a secret ballot on whether to become members of SEIU. Lawyers for the union contend in the federal complaint that the firings represent unfair labor practices. They said Chase Brexton executives fired the workers to "interfere with, restrain and coerce" employees trying to form a union.
"I do think the timing seems suspicious," said Brian Owens, a lead organizer with SEIU.
In an internal email sent to employees and obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Chase Brexton CEO Richard L. Larison discourages workers from joining the union. He accuses the union of using "misleading tactics" to gain support and announces a series of meetings in which the company would provide information that would dissuade people from joining the union.
"We believe after everyone weighs both sides and has the facts, you will agree with us that you do not need a third party to represent you, and you will vote "NO" on August 25th," Larison wrote in the email "We will get through this process together, and come out of this stronger as an organization and continue to be committed to providing quality health care for our patients."
Like many community-based clinics, Chase Brexton has seen an influx of patients under the Affordable Care Act, which gave more people access to insurance. It moved its headquarters to the Monumental Life Building on Charles Street in 2013 and recently expanded its Glen Burnie location. It also has offices in Columbia, Randallstown, Easton and at the Maryland Institute College of Art. While it is known for catering to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Chase Brexton has been trying to position itself as a clinic that serves everyone.
In interviews this week, workers said the number of patients has increased drastically and they have been ordered to spend less time with each patient to keep up. Employees said they are spending weekends and evenings doing administrative paperwork because there is no time to do it on weekdays.
"Our patient care has really been suffering," said Karen Hillman, a staff therapist and certified clinical social worker who has worked at Chase Brexton for five years.
The fired employees had worked at Chase Brexton for decades, said union officials, doctors and social workers who know them.
John Singleton, a lawyer representing the four, said they were not part of the union organizing but might have been seen as sympathetic to the organizers. He has asked the Labor Relations Board to expedite their case.
"It's like the company said, 'Hey, who can we get rid of and really send a message,'" Singleton said.
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Some Chase Brexton workers said the firings have caused them to worry about their jobs, but they still plan to vote in favor of unionizing.
"To fire those people, it kind of makes us a little scared for our own job," said Dr. Erkeda Derouen, a physician at Chase Brexton. "I have been here for a year and don't think I'm doing a bad job. But if you have people who can suddenly get fired like this, you don't know what could happen."
Stacey Jackson, a therapist who specializes in treating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said the employees were fired just after management decided who would be eligible to vote in the union election.
"The timing and aggression with which it took place, while they won't admit it, was to create a chilling affect among employees and say, 'This could happen to you,'" Jackson said.