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Planned Parenthood Great Plains Cuts Staff Amid Complaints of 'Chaos and Toxicity'

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, based in Overland Park, operates 11 health centers in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. (KCUR file photo)

Story by Dan Margolies, KCUR

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates health clinics in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, has offered severance packages to dozens of employees as it reels from a financial crisis caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirty-six employees in communications, development, education, human resources, finance and public affairs were eligible to receive the offers. Friday is their deadline to accept. As of Thursday, nine had accepted.

The workforce reductions come in the wake of a sharp drop in patient demand caused by the pandemic, which led to canceled appointments from March through June, and a corresponding drop in revenues and fundraising.

The reductions also come atop significant employee turnover in the past year, with many current and former workers describing a toxic work culture that has added to the stress of working for an organization that finds itself under unremitting attack by abortion opponents.

“We are offering a voluntary separation program because, like many nonprofits, we’ve been affected by the pandemic and resultant economic downturn,” Mandy Culbertson, a spokeswoman for PPGP, told KCUR in an email. “As a nonprofit health organization serving low-income patients, we aim to keep patient costs down, so we look internally to control expenses.”

Unaffected by the buyout offers are the organization’s front-line health care workers, including doctors and nurses, as well as employees working in the areas of information technology and security.

But with financial projections showing PPGP with a negative cash balance as early as next month, additional layoffs and furloughs could be coming as soon as this fall, the organization has warned.

Based in Overland Park, Kansas, PPGP operates 10 health care centers in Kansas Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Besides medication and surgical abortions at some of those centers, it offers an array of sexual and reproductive health services at all of its clinics.

In addition to the fiscal problems brought on by the pandemic, PPGP has incurred substantial legal expenses over the last few years fighting efforts to cut off its Medicaid funding and challenging restrictions on abortion access and services in the four states in which it operates.

Despite PPGP’s dire financial situation, employees who received separation offers, which were made in the middle of last month, said they were caught off-guard by the offers.

“We were only given until July 10 to decide whether we were going to take it, which is not a lot of time, especially given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic,” said Ashley McCray, who works as an organizer for PPGP in Oklahoma and plans to accept the offer. “And most people living in red states can’t find comparable employment.”

A long time coming

At a tense “town hall” meeting via Zoom conference call in late June, employees sharply questioned PPGP President and CEO Brandon Hill about the moves and criticized pay disparities within the organization.

PPGP had told employees in April that their pay would be cut by 10% as the pandemic began to eat into PPGP’s revenues.

Hill draws a salary in excess of $200,000, more than six times as much as many lower-ranking employees make. And though he told employees at the meeting that he had taken a voluntary 10% pay cut, he said any further cuts would be up to PPGP’s board of directors.

In a phone interview, Hill said that PPGP’s senior leadership will be the last to have their full salaries restored, “which could be all the way through December or January, from what we’re projecting.”

Discontent at the organization had already been brewing before the pandemic. An employee satisfaction survey taken last year revealed widespread unhappiness among rank-and-file employees, who complained of a lack of transparency, pay inequities and a top-heavy management structure.

“My biggest takeaways, honestly, from my time there was just the lack of visibility and transparency,” said Maggie Horigan, who worked in the human relations department and left in January to take another job. “The lack of transparency was definitely reinforced by supervisors and the executive staff.”

While the overwhelming majority of employees surveyed said they found their work meaningful, only 31% said they were given career development opportunities, only 34% said different work units worked well together and only 39% responded affirmatively to the statement, “The environment at this organization makes employees in my work units want to go above and beyond what’s expected of them.”

“Of course, the pandemic has dealt a really debilitating blow to Planned Parenthood. … But it’s my hypothesis that there are a lot of things that contributed to the financial hardship, one being a toxic work environment,” said Alex Aguilar, an employee in the development department who accepted the severance offer.

Hill declined to discuss personnel matters, but he said the organization has policies and procedures in place to address employee complaints.

“Those are always taken very seriously and we do a real thorough investigation,” he said. “And then determinations are made, whether it’s discipline, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s mediation. And the one thing that can be tricky as we move through the process and final resolution is not necessarily known to everyone.”

Leaving the dream

But Amanda Steele, PPGP’s director of development for two years until she left in September, said she wondered if Hill recognized “the chaos and toxicity that manifested itself” at PPGP.

“Think about all of the incredibly hardworking, dedicated people at Planned Parenthood that have left, all of the talent,” Steele said. “It’s hard to leave an organization you believe in 100%. Planned Parenthood, that's a dream job for people who believe in that mission. And then to have that bad taste in all of our mouths. That's unfortunate.”

The organization has experienced a high rate of employee turnover – as many as half its nearly 150 employees left in the past year – although that problem predates Hill’s arrival in February 2018 and goes back to the tenure of former CEO Laura McQuade, who left to become CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, the biggest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the country.

McQuade stepped down from Planned Parenthood of Greater New York last month after more than 300 employees signed an open letter accusing her of abusive behavior, financial mismanagement, failing to address problems of systemic racism and pay disparities, and overseeing unprecedented turnover of senior staff.

PPGP employees acknowledge Hill inherited problems bequeathed to him by McQuade but say he has not done enough to quell the discontent.

“We have senior leaders making six figures and they have protected their status,” Aguilar said. “They’re not held accountable, they don’t do the same amount of work that lower-level staff do and they’re paid exorbitant amounts.”

Rachel Ulanowski, who worked in the development department as a data analyst, said she left last year because she could no longer tolerate the emotional abuse dealt out by her boss, PPGP’s vice president of development.

“I don’t think Brandon is a bad person,” Ulanowski said, referring to Hill. “But he doesn’t prioritize the well-being of his staff or address any of the complaints.”

Hill, however, said that many of the actions taken by the organization to address employee complaints are confidential and can’t be shared with employees.

“And that’s in everyone’s interest,” he said.

Discontent and divisions

Luz Ortiz, who worked as a PPGP educator in a satellite office in Kansas City, Kansas, said the separation offers to employees were driven as much by the results of the employee satisfaction survey as by the pandemic.

“I kind of feel like they were just trying to get rid of all the external affairs people because we have been very vocal about how unsatisfied we have been,” Ortiz said.

Ulanowski recalled a time when Hill, addressing employees’ complaints that they were overworked, underpaid and under a great deal of stress, said that “everyone just needs to be sedated.”

“The environment working at Planned Parenthood in a purple or red state is stressful enough as it is,” Ulanowski said. “Like you have protesters there every single day. And for him to say, ‘Oh my staff – they’re just a bunch of whiners!’”

Hill said that since his arrival two-and-a-half years ago, he has worked hard to increase transparency and the employee town hall a couple of weeks ago was an example.

“We had staff that were seeking more information, and I very much welcomed the feedback,” he said.

“We share more employee satisfaction information than we ever have before, giving people actual reports, numbers, data, and not culling the information.”

One source of employee discontent has been the divide between PPGP’s health care side and its outward-facing side – the people involved in raising funds, engaging in community outreach, lobbying and other functions not directly related to the provision of health care. Employees said the two halves rarely communicated.

“There’s a huge silo between those two areas,” Aguilar said. “And I think that’s very intentional. Because external affairs, historically, have been the groups with very low satisfaction results.”

More than a dozen current and former PPGP employees interviewed by KCUR said they remain devoted to the organization’s mission and had been reluctant to speak about the work environment there for fear of imperiling that mission.

“A lot of the reasons why this behavior is allowed to thrive is because the employees are keenly aware of how much they’re up against just to continue to operate in our four states,” said Horigan, the former HR employee. “So nobody wants to be disparaging of their own organization because that’s just going to be fodder for the people” who want to see Planned Parenthood’s demise.

Hill acknowledged that working for Planned Parenthood can take an emotional toll, especially because “defeat is common in some of the fights that we have.”

“We’ve worked to promote as much transparency and push out as much internet communication as possible,” he said, “but I have no doubt that the level of uncertainty that our employees work in can take a toll. It’s inherent in the work that we do. We have great fierce fighters who work for us, but we’re not invincible. We have to constantly respond to the external factors that are working to basically break down the health care system that we provide.”

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