As Covid-19 hit New York, staff at a number of Planned Parenthood health centers found themselves facing two crises at once: keeping health services going and keeping their jobs. As some health centers closed temporarily and shifted to telehealth services, staff also saw their hours cut or positions furloughed. To hear workers describe it, this was not entirely unforeseen. For more than a year, they had pressed management to improve conditions for staff, particularly for Black workers, and for the patients they care for. Some on staff have now decided to take their demands public, “inspired and emboldened by national movements led by Black people holding organizations and institutions accountable and working to dismantle systems of oppression and white supremacy.”
This comes from a letter sent by a collective of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York staff to the organization’s board and shared with The New Republic. Citing alleged “abusive behavior and financial malfeasance,” a collective of current and former staff of Planned Parenthood’s largest affiliate has called for the “immediate removal” of its CEO, Laura McQuade. Staff say in her two-year tenure, McQuade has “created a culture of fear and intimidation.” Their specific concerns include “years of complaints from staff about issues of systemic racism, pay inequity, and lack of upward mobility for Black staff,” as well as “dozens of staff members [who] have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees.” All of this, they say, “fundamentally threatened the fiscal and operational viability of Planned Parenthood’s largest affiliate and its 900 employees.”
The letter comes 10 months after staff at PPGNY voted unanimously to unionize with 1199 SEIU, the country’s largest health care workers’ union. (The collective behind the letter includes both union and nonunion staff, current staff, and recently furloughed staff.) In that time, under McQuade, Planned Parenthood New York City merged with several other affiliates to become PPGNY, with plans to accommodate 200,000 patient visits each year across 28 health centers. The affiliate grew while outside attacks on Planned Parenthood intensified, from new anti-abortion restrictions to Federal Title X funding—which Planned Parenthood lost when it exited the program rather than cease offering abortion services—to a pronounced increase in threats to abortion providers nationwide, fueled by disinformation flowing from the White House.
In the best of political times, it would be a challenge for many workers in nonprofit organizations with a progressive mission to voice public criticisms. When that organization is the subject of the kind of destructive moral panic and targeted political attacks Planned Parenthood has faced, it can feel dangerous. Concerns about how such critiques might be used in bad faith by conservatives can inhibit workers’ ability to seek public support to improve their organization. This suppression is also something that can benefit management. “We are deeply committed to maintaining access to abortion and sexual and reproductive health care; while acutely aware of the political landscape, we have experienced firsthand how constant public scrutiny perpetuates a culture of silence within reproductive health organizations,” the collective letter states. “This has allowed our leadership to stoke the fear that public expression of internal dysfunctions might threaten access to care.” (PPGNY did not respond to The New Republic’s request for comment by time of publication.)
Staff say that McQuade has failed to act when they voiced concerns internally. In response to repeated complaints about systemic racism, “highly paid consultants were brought in three separate times to assess the situation. Each time, employees of color were brutally honest about their experiences, but nothing changed.”
A group of both current and former Black, Indigenous, People of Color, or BIPOC, staff elaborated in an additional statement that, “At this point, PPGNY’s attempts to present itself as a diverse workplace have been carefully orchestrated and superficial at best.” They say though management has brought staff of color into senior roles, that has been a change in representation, not policy or practice. “We know that Black people in positions of leadership or BIPOC leadership does not in itself ensure an environment either free of or working towards the abolition of white supremacy.” Despite even those efforts, they write, “[w]hite and non-Black employees are still given more pay and more advancement opportunities than their Black colleagues.”
When Covid-19 hit, McQuade laid off or furloughed 28 percent of the staff, impacting about 250 employees. “These decisions were not taken lightly and only made under very careful consideration,” McQuade wrote at the time. “We made this decision to get us through this challenging time and preserve the longer-term future of PPGNY after this pandemic recedes.”
The letter contests this: “Under McQuade and with budgets approved by the Board, the organization has lost the 18 million dollar surplus she inherited and replaced it with a 2020 projected deficit of 6.2 million dollars for the first six months, well before the COVID-19 crisis.” At the same time, the staff write, McQuade told them she would not make cuts to senior leadership salaries, including her own. (McQuade’s total compensation, as of the organization’s most recent, available tax filings, was reported as $428,321.) The unit’s bargaining committee suggested alternatives in order to save jobs, which it says were rejected.
PPGNY is just one of several Planned Parenthood affiliates that have unionized in recent years. At other affiliates, Planned Parenthood fought unionization drives, engaging in tactics like captive audience meetings or claiming a union would be “harmful to patients.” When staff attempting to unionize at a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Austin, Texas, were laid off this April, they were told it was due to Covid-19, but as one organizer said, “Our suspicion is that it was motivated by our organizing activity.”
What PPGNY staff seek now, according to their letter, goes beyond removing their CEO and the leadership around her. They want a “thorough, independent investigation” into their “allegations of abuse and financial malfeasance.” They hope for a change in how the organization is governed. “We reject what we view as McQuade’s Trumpian leadership style and envision a Planned Parenthood where all our staff, in particular our Black and other staff of color, are honored for their expertise and included in the decision making process.” This isn’t meant only to help Planned Parenthood survive this current crisis. As many organizations are also attempting in this moment, it is a way to reckon with what got it here and to build something better in its place.