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Laura McQuade is seen at a Planned Parenthood charity gala in New York, on May 1, 2019.KRISTA SCHLUETER/The New York Times News Service

Facing mounting complaints about abusive behaviour and unfair treatment of Black staff members, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Laura McQuade, has been ousted from her job.

The organization’s board of directors had supported McQuade as recently as last week. On Tuesday, however, the group reversed course, sending an e-mail to staff members saying the board had “parted ways” with her the previous day.

The move came after hundreds of former and current employees signed a series of public letters over the past week faulting McQuade for what they said was an autocratic, abusive leadership style ill-suited to any organization, let alone one known for its progressive credentials.

The letters accused McQuade of berating and humiliating employees; presiding over a system that paid Black staff members unequally and kept them from advancing in their careers; and supporting layoffs and furloughs for nearly a third of the organization’s employees amid the COVID-19 crisis without cutting her own pay or that of other top officials.

Writing under the name Save Planned Parenthood Greater New York, the current and former employees also accused McQuade of squandering a financial surplus and steering a call-center contract to a former Planned Parenthood executive whom the group described as a friend of McQuade’s.

“We reject what we view as McQuade’s Trumpian leadership style,” one of the letters said, comparing McQuade to the president, “and envision a Planned Parenthood where all our staff, in particular our black and other staff of colour, are honoured for their expertise and included in the decision-making process.”

McQuade, in an interview Tuesday, called the allegations against her false but she said that “this is not the time to refute them.”

“I feel nothing but good will toward the organization, and I want them to succeed,” she said. “The work that we have undertaken over the last three years together has been some of the most important work of my life.”

A statement from the organization sought both to acknowledge McQuade’s efforts and to move on.

“During Laura’s tenure, PPGNY made some important operational changes,” the organization said in the statement. “But growing concerns raised by our staff made her continued leadership untenable.”

“Our employees are on the front lines of some of the most critical health care work in the country,” the statement continued, “and we recognize we must make some changes to ensure our clinicians and centre staff continue to feel supported in meeting the needs of all patients.”

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, which formed in January when five chapters in the state merged, had around 900 employees as of early this year, making it the largest affiliate of Planned Parenthood, the national reproductive rights, abortion provider and service organization.

In the email to staff members, the organization said it would be run by a group of senior officials while it conducted a search for a new leader.

Before the merger, McQuade was the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of New York City, a job she took in 2017 after leading Planned Parenthood Great Plains, an affiliate that served Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The open letters, signed by at least 350 current and former employees, included a litany of concerns. Topping the list were complaints about the harsh way that McQuade interacted with employees.

“Dozens of staff members have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees, often brutally shaming staff members in internal meetings in front of their colleagues,” one letter stated.

“People could hear her down the hallway screaming and berating people,” said a current New York staff member, who, like nearly all of those who signed the letters, did so using his initials and spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

The complaints about McQuade came during a period of consolidation for the organization that included changes some staff members opposed strongly.

After she was hired in 2017, McQuade spearheaded multiple changes, including lengthening clinic hours to 9 p.m., ending a popular practice of giving employees who work Saturday the day off on holiday weekends and demanding higher patient-visit numbers and greater efficiency, according to letters sent to the board last year.

In a setting where sensitive sexual issues are discussed and abortions are conducted, the pressure being exerted by McQuade was pushing clinical staff “to rush through what is, at the end of the day, a very sensitive clinical experience,” one letter stated.

To increase bargaining power with insurance companies and to streamline the organization’s operations, she oversaw the merger of Planned Parenthood New York City with the Nassau County, Mid-Hudson Valley, Mohawk Hudson and the Southern Finger Lakes chapters.

But employees said she squandered a healthy surplus and made poor financial decisions, including laying off all of the employees at the organization’s internal call centre and giving the work to a group run by another former Planned Parenthood executive, said the staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The coronavirus outbreak brought matters to a head. In April, McQuade announced layoffs and furloughs affecting 250 employees, and she closed health centres in Queens and the Bronx even as they served minority women who were disproportionately affected by the disease, according to another public letter outlining staff members’ concerns about equity.

McQuade, the letter recounted, said at a staff meeting in May that she did not support reducing her salary or those of other senior staff members because “it would not have let us keep the strongest people with us moving forward.”

In 2018, the most recent tax year available, McQuade received $428,000 in total compensation, public tax filings show.

Building on the push for organizations across the United States to address issues of systemic racism, one of the letters said that racism at the organization went well beyond McQuade, though it stated things had worsened under her tenure.

“White and non-black employees are still given more pay and more advancement opportunities than their black colleagues,” the letter said.

While the board defended McQuade and her record on racial equity in a June 19 response, it appeared to rethink that stance after other Planned Parenthood leaders took notice of the outrage.

Robin Chappelle Golston, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, the lobbying organization for the state’s Planned Parenthood chapters, said in a letter of support that she had “witnessed the aggressive and disrespectful attitude of PPGNY leadership toward my colleagues and experienced it myself.”

In a separate statement, Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, expressed her support for the staff uprising.

“The allegations are serious,” she wrote, “and we expect the Planned Parenthood Greater New York board of directors to hold themselves accountable to their mission and values.”

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