Editor’s note: The Nation Report has been following reports coming from Women’s Health staff employees for several months. We have chosen to give some of our sources anonymity for their safety due to the ongoing physical risk that the trans community continues to experience, but also due to discriminatory hiring practices against the LGBTQ community that still permeates within job markets. All of those who resigned either began seeking employment immediately, or are currently seeking other employment. Others fear retaliation for speaking out, and we are respecting their wishes to remain anonymous.
Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center (BVWHC) averted shuttering its doors on August 8 after a multitude of its employees held off staging a mass walk-out. Those employees cited unsustainable working conditions.
After experiencing ongoing frustration by current employees that led to their eventual resignations, the clinic may still find itself with insufficient staff to provide services at the level it once did, since about half of Women’s Health resigned or left, all within the past four months. That number has climbed to 20 of its 42 staff members as of this writing.
Employees decided instead to resign rather than walking out, out of concern for patients who needed care, they said. In some cases, only certain individuals had been trained to perform specific duties, so a resignation made more sense to those who left.
Resignations came from clinic and patient services assistants, directors and supervisors, counselors, educators and organizational support staff. These same staff attribute the responsibility of the institutional breakdown to leadership including the board of directors.
BVWHC has existed in Boulder since 1973 in different locations including on Broadway Street in its early years. BVWHC began providing abortion care after Roe V. Wade was decided in the US Supreme Court, and now offers gender inclusive reproductive and sexual healthcare services, birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, transgender hormone therapy, and a confidential Teen Clinic.
It is these services offered to even those who cannot afford them, that have earned the organization the respect it has among the public. Most recently BVWHC was lauded by women’s groups and in Letter’s to the Editor for rejecting Title 10 federal family planning funds. Under the Trump administration’s newly created policies, recipients of Title 10 funding would be forced to discontinue even referring patients for abortion and prohibit health centers from providing abortion services except in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergency.
BVWHC enjoys high dollar donations that have allowed the center to provide low-cost healthcare.
But those who have recently resigned challenge the public perception of a highly regarded and respected pillar of Boulder County. Employees describe an establishment and atmosphere of oppression and disrespect toward themselves and particular patients with targeted identities.
BVWHC employees who identify as LGBTQ and who recently resigned reported being routinely misgendered by coworkers including by medical providers who serve the transgender community, gender nonconforming and nonbinary patients. One of those affected who wished to remain anonymous told The Nation Report, “Clinic policy states that for safety and security reasons, all staff are required to wear their nametag at all times. This felt advantageous to me as a nonbinary person who uses ‘they’ and ‘them’ pronouns, that my pronouns would be clearly visible to any person I interacted with, but having my pronouns clearly printed on my nametag didn’t deter misgendering, except by my coworkers who respect me, my pronouns, and want to intervene in the harmful impacts that misgendering can cause, which clearly several staff members of this organization do not understand.”
Representing the entire community, including the LGBTQ and nonbinary community, was an issue that continued to perplex former staff members who eventually resigned. Those staff members favored a name change from Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center to reflect that the clinic provides family planning, gender affirming, and abortion care to all genders, not just cisgender women as the current name implies. According to another former employee, “The clinic has been getting pushback from the community for a while to change their name to be more inclusive.”
Employees recognized the failure of the organization to represent the community with its current name, “There was a big brand-building effort that happened and [BVWHC] spent to my knowledge $60,000 on this effort and nothing happened, because once again staff felt they weren’t included. People on this committee shared their concerns about the potential change of the name and how there are issues for various marginalized groups. This created a lot of mistrust within the organization. No one was told why this effort was stopped.”
A group of those who resigned on August 8, as well as those who have resigned since, issued a critical statement that outlines problems employees experienced after having made several attempts to improve what they referenced as a hostile working environment which amplified after the executive director, Susan Buchanan, took a four month sabbatical leave, and a member of the board of directors assumed the role. Some employees referred to the move as a “severe conflict of interest.”
Others point to issues with the Executive Director that date back to at least a decade, but more recent complaints that were formally submitted to the Board of Directors point to a lack of effective leadership, “In November 2018, during a yearly review of our Executive Director, at least half of the executive administrative team spoke about specific concerns regarding the Executive Director to the Board President and Vice President.”
As a result, the Board President and Vice President committed to taking action about these concerns, but before a “performance plan” or any formal action could be taken, “the Executive Director requested a four month sabbatical which the Board of Directors approved.” That sabbatical began in March.
Kathleen Melendy who was one of the several who resigned on August 8 said she was initially excited to begin a new career at BVWHC when she was hired a year ago at an organization that was doing great work. But Melendy quickly became aware that working conditions were not acceptable, “When I first came in, it was clear that [BVWHC] had already gone through a lot. They were hiring for a lot of new positions and I was basically the first one to start a new wave of hiring.” Melendy was first hired in August of 2018, “But all through September and October we were bringing new people on because of how many people who had left. And I didn’t know why that was. From the beginning it was clear that something had happened that made people leave in mass. It took me a long time to realize that [BVWHC] wasn’t what I thought it was.”
Melendy especially emphasized problems with services that were provided to patients, “The first thing I realized was that [employees] who had been there for a while seemed unhappy. Then some of the ways we were interacting with patients. I thought we were supposed to be serving low-income, people of color, trans people. And I felt those patients weren’t getting the quality of care that they deserved.”
Melendy points to scheduling as one example, where trans and non-binary people were not scheduled because certain providers within the medical staff were not trained to see trans and non-binary people.
Other employees expressed frustration that one medical provider in particular who was trained to see trans patients for their follow-up visits would attempt to persuade scheduling staff to limit the number of trans people to no more than 1 or 2 during her shift, “Some of these same practices led to the scheduling of trans people out for longer than they needed to be.”
Another staff member who resigned in 2012 alleged that about eight years ago when BVWHC began to delve into providing trans and non binary care, “The doctor who provided these services expressed transphobic statements and ideologies about the trans community.”
Other staff members who have resigned reported resentment that this same doctor who writes hormone prescriptions for trans patients requires the patient to bring a referral letter from a mental health professional in order to receive the medical care they are seeking. BVWHC employees took issue with this practice because the practice is considered problematic and re-traumatizing within the trans community. Many clinics across the country have done away with this practice.
Employees also had an issue with income disparities and questioned why at a nonprofit, some employees were earning less than a living wage to be able to live in Boulder while the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer were averaging $100,000 a year. Melendy named the issue of having received a cost of living increase mandated by the state, as the only wage increase she received during her year of employment.
Employees who had recently resigned disclosed to The Nation Report suppressed information known by other former employees, yet common knowledge within a small group close to an incident that occurred in 2018. In that instance a batch of Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) were discovered to be outside of the required temperature that the devices should be stored.
“One of our nurses said, ‘No we shouldn’t be using this,’ and [the Executive Director] decided to use them anyway.”
Employees say they became aware that the batch of potentially defective IUDs were to be used in the Longmont location of BVWHC.
“And the people who were receiving these were mostly teenagers in Longmont. So a marginalized group of people and young people who sometimes don’t advocate for themselves.”
Waves of employees reported dissatisfaction with the a lack of response and a lack of action on the part of the Board of Directors. After employees attempted on at least two different occasions to seek help from the board to address issues, they say it became clear to employees that leadership was averting employee communication with the board, and minimizing the problems.
On one particular attempt to address the board, employees were denied the opportunity to be present at a July board meeting by the Interim Executive Director who told the group, “So I’d like you to step outside so that I know what you’re going to say.” This denial contradicts information distributed in an employee handbook that states all staff are welcomed to attend board meetings.
Former employees continue to organize and point their efforts to achieve justice for those they say were harmed by BVWHC. Some of that organizing includes changing the traditional narrative that has in the past, described the organization. Other efforts include meeting with state legislators in hopes of increasing greater oversight of BVWHC practices.
One former employee concluded their interview, “It feels important for the public to know who is running the organizations in the community and what their money is going towards. And that we all have an ethical and moral responsibility to do no harm and to support marginalized voices that continue to be pushed to the side, and continue to elevate them.”