EVERETT — Former Everett Clinic employees say a wave of layoffs in August gutted departments and left dozens of people without work.
A former senior manager for Optum, who spoke with The Daily Herald on the condition of anonymity, said the company laid off around 67 employees from The Everett Clinic and The Polyclinic in Seattle.
Two other former workers, who asked to remain anonymous, said managers instructed employees to pack up their belongings and be escorted out of the building.
“After 15 years, it’s just like, boom, you’re done, get out,” said one former supervisor, who asked to remain anonymous over concerns about the terms of their severance. “I was cut off completely.”
The layoffs were part of a company-wide move by Optum, the clinic’s parent company since 2017. Optum is part of UnitedHealth, one of the largest health care corporations in the country. Optum revenue jumped 25% in the second quarter of 2023 to $56.3 billion, according to a UnitedHealth Group report.
Optum declined an interview with The Herald, but emailed a statement:
“We continually review the capabilities and services we offer to meet the growing and evolving needs of our businesses and the people we serve. As always, we will support affected team members with job placement resources and seek to deploy them where possible to any open roles within the company.”
Many people have taken to social media to announce they were part of nationwide layoffs at Optum-owned clinics. The director of operations for Optum Washington, for example, posted that he was laid off after 10 years with the company. Others were trying to understand what they can say publicly after signing contracts with severance agreements. The Herald spoke with five former employees who requested anonymity for fear of breaking their contracts and losing pay, or worse.
“It’s a lot of legal mumbo jumbo,” a former courier for The Everett Clinic said.
‘Things don’t get fixed’
Last month, Optum laid off all but one of the 14 employees in The Everett Clinic’s courier department responsible for picking up and delivering mail, medical tools and specimens for lab processing.
“My boss didn’t know, my boss’s boss had told me nothing was going on,” the former supervisor said. “Now, I got to start over somewhere. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Courier drivers are now outsourced through Airspace, an “Uber-type” company that hires independent contractors who work out of their own vehicles, the former supervisor said. He said these vehicles, unlike clinic-owned vehicles, don’t always meet federal workplace safety standards and other health regulations.
“They’re really slow,” the former supervisor said. “They’re not as readily available.”
He said this is especially a problem for stat specimens, which require a quick turnaround for lab testing and results. He said employees who remain at the clinic have complained that outdated route schedules and a language barrier with the new couriers have caused mass delays since the layoffs. Many patients had to return to the clinic to give new samples for lab testing, he said.
The former supervisor said Optum has done away with departments that helped to enforce health standards.
“Things don’t get fixed,” he said. “The place is dirtier because they don’t have as much housekeeping. It feels like Optum wants to run like a McDonald’s but charge higher prices.”
Everett resident Kara Hope has multiple family ties to The Everett Clinic, including two people who were laid off in August. She said one family member who worked in the clinic’s human resources department for over 40 years received a six-month severance package.
The HR department has shrunk from more than 30 employees to four since Optum bought the clinic, Hope said. Former employees said HR concerns are now directed to unfamiliar people in other states.
“It’s really awful the way they’re treated as if they’re just a number,” Hope said. “The Everett Clinic wouldn’t have done this to them. This is Optum.”
One former nurse said she was laid off along with five other nurses.
“I had been with the company 7 years,” she said in an email. “Younger nurses with way less experience were kept on.”
‘The local community always loses’
Federal and state laws require large companies to warn employees 60 days before mass layoffs of 50 employees or more, and to report those layoffs to the government. As of Friday, Optum had not filed any such Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification documents.
A spokesperson for the state’s Employment Security Department said the only way to enforce the WARN Act is if impacted workers pursue legal action.
“Neither the Employment Security Department nor the U.S. Department of Labor has enforcement authority against employers that fail to comply with requirements of the WARN Act,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Several former Everett Clinic employees said language in their severance contracts bars them from taking legal action against Optum.
“It’s hard to say no to three, four months worth of pay while you’re trying to get back on your feet,” the former supervisor said.
Earlier this year, The Everett Clinic began charging Premera and its patients 50% higher rates — the highest in the state — a move that resulted in a lawsuit in King County Superior Court. Appellate judges ruled in The Everett Clinic and Optum’s favor.
State Sen. June Robinson, a Democrat from Everett on the state’s Health & Long Term Care Committee, said patients are losing control of their health care options.
“When a large national company takes over a local organization, the local community always loses,” she said.
Optum garnered criticism late last year when it failed to reach a contract agreement with Regence BlueShield, risking insurance coverage for thousands of Everett Clinic patients. Regence sent a letter to patients at the time blaming Optum’s demand for a 15.75% rate increase.
Optum renewed its contract with Regence for “Commercial members” in December, but the following month released an update that it terminated contracts with Regence and Aetna’s Medicare Advantage plans. Almost half of people with Medicare in Washington have Medicare Advantage plans.
Robinson said legislators are limited in how they can impact health care. She tried to pass a bill on anti-competitive contracting that was rejected last legislative session. It would have helped to prevent large companies from using their market share to control insurance prices.
“It’s very challenging,” she said. “A lot of money gets spent trying to influence legislators in one direction or another.”
Companies like Optum keep local clinics in service, Robinson said, and a large-scale restructuring of the health care system is needed for community-based care to thrive.
“It’s important for patients to continue to speak out about the care they are receiving,” Robinson said. “Folks who work in health care policy do pay attention to quality outcomes. If people aren’t getting quality care, that would drive some necessary changes.”
The former courier said The Everett Clinic is not the same as it was when he joined in 2014.
“You almost felt a sense of pride working for a company that’s been around 100 years; it started right here,” he said. “Now it seems like it’s no different than any of the others.”