A Family Affair: Labor woes at the Friend Family Health Center

Friend Family Health Center, by Ellis Calvin

The Friend Family Health Center treats over 5,000 patients every month. Located at the corner of 55th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, its patients come from all over the South Side, and many are under- or uninsured. The University of Chicago Medical Center, its affiliate, often refers patients there, and it is especially vital when their emergency room gets too busy. In recent months, the FFHC has been treating more patients than ever, providing pediatric, obstetric, and primary medical care as well as a number of social services. To the casual observer, it would seem that the FFHC is living up to its pledge: “To treat everyone with respect and kindness…That’s a friend.”

For the people who work at the FFHC, however, it’s an entirely different story. Employees tell stories of blatant disrespect and harassment from management. One woman who has been working there since the center was established in 1997–we’ll call her Janet–described being told frequently to “be quiet” and to “use critical thinking.” “Management doesn’t seem to respect us,” she said. “They talk down to us like we’re children.” At the same time, they enforce a double standard: Once, when Janet used the intercom to ask some noisy children to quiet down–a reasonable decision, which “hadn’t been a problem before”–her supervisor, Director of Operations Tanya Ford, gave her “an immediate write-up,” bypassing the procedural three verbal warnings, as she said, “because of the severity of the infraction.”

This might sound like something out of grade school, but it’s far more insidious. Janet suspects she is being hassled because her seniority entitles her to a higher salary and longer vacation. “There’s a lot of harassment. If they can’t find anything wrong with your work, you get called into the office all the time; they’re saying little things to make me angry and make me quit.” Sometimes management is even more straightforward: in November 2006, two months before her sixtieth birthday, the human resources manager demanded that she prove why she was entitled to more vacation time than anyone else–despite the fact that she had been receiving a longer vacation for years, having been grandfathered in since the time she worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals (UCH). The issue was eventually dropped, but the frustration continues.

Working at the FFHC wasn’t always so unpleasant. “The past administration tried to work with us; they understood labor laws,” Janet says. “I don’t think this administration has experience with union shops.” In any case, it has been ruthless–and strikingly successful–in its attempts to weaken the FFHC’s union. Back in 2001, when the FFHC split off from UCH, the union had twenty or thirty members–now it’s down to twelve. “They’ll hire you as a temp through an agency,” says another worker, “or they’ll hire you part-time for thirty-five hours a week. Or they’ll switch your title, but you’ll be doing the same thing.”

The new administration is headed by CEO Wayne Moyer, a Certified Public Accountant who has spent much of his career doing consulting for federal agencies and helping bankrupt and indebted organizations to recover financially. After he took on his position at the FFHC in December 2005, Moyer says, he “got a good management team in place–made sure we had competent people.” Including Medical Director Dr. Leah Durst, Chief Financial Officer Leah Moore, and Director of Operations Tanya Ford, the team took on the previously unfilled job of managing financial growth. It also inaugurated what Moyer calls a change in the “culture of the organization.” “We’re focusing more on customer service,” he explains. “We want to make people who come here feel special.” More physicians and greater accessibility, he says, “have helped in terms of increasing patient volume,” which is now on track to total 60,000 visits this year.

“They keep saying we’re doing so well that the patient census is up,” says Janet. “I can’t understand–if we’re bringing in more revenue, why can’t they pay their workers more?” Janet is one of the twelve members of the FFHC’s union, which has been in the midst of contract negotiations since July 2006. None have received a raise in the two years since, although for Janet it’s been more like three. Because of her seniority, she recalls, “They said I was already overpaid.” According to union steward Kearo Johnson, the negotiating meetings have been infrequent and limited to just four hours at a time. As he sees it, though, the main reason for the stalemate is the unacceptable proposals put forward by the administration: “They’re saying one percent a year if you meet standards, two percent if you exceed. We said no.” Compared to the yearly 2.25 percent raises offered by the previous administration, the current proposal seems paltry indeed–especially since it would replace the seniority-based system of wage increases with “merit pay,” a scheme highly vulnerable to the whims and favoritism of management. Perhaps most tellingly, the administration demanded that the union contract be made identical to the general personnel handbook–a move that would strip the union of the very rights it exists to protect.

The importance of those rights becomes clearer every day at the FFHC, where employee turnover is “remarkable,” according to Janet. “Lots of people leave–people who’ve been here for years.” She and Johnson list off name after name, adding up nine people who have quit within the past four months. “We had people who wasn’t gonna kiss management’s butt–people who didn’t want to file a grievance and just left,” says Johnson. Others were fired. Moyer voices little concern about the loss of experienced workers; he contends, “Employees should get with the market, like anything else. If they truly feel they’re being treated unfairly, that they’re not being paid a competitive wage, they should go into the marketplace–like anything or anyone else.”

Talking to some of the FFHC’s workers, one has a palpable sense of the kind of “culture” that pervades this organization. One woman was so afraid of losing her job that she did not want her story printed, even under a false name. “There are lots of issues with this company,” she tells me, describing how workers were forbidden to use the restroom except when they were on break. They have ignored this rule, but others are more difficult to get around. The system is seemingly designed to milk employees for every minute of work they can perform: “We have to punch in at 7:25 to work at 7:30.” The lack of over-time pay also poses a serious problem: “Sometimes you’re in the middle of a patient, and you’re looking at your watch and you have to go, but you try to hurry up and finish that patient.”

Like any workers, those at the FFHC sometimes need to take a day or more off. For Martha Velasco, one of those days was February 28 of this year, when her daughter was scheduled to have kidney surgery. When she explained this to her supervisor, however, she was told that she “may have abandoned her job,” something she had no intention of doing. She ended up taking only a single day off to be with her daughter, who has a serious heart condition. “I don’t know if these people are harsh, if they have no compassion in their hearts,” she says. “I would love to stay with this company as it grows, but when I see this kind of stuff, I start thinking to myself that it’s time to look for other employment.”

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