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With the future of abortion uncertain, Mass. Planned Parenthood workers are unionizing

Planned Parenthood in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff File/Boston Globe

Workers at the four Planned Parenthood clinics in Massachusetts are organizing a union, an effort that has taken on new urgency as the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance.

If the Supreme Court overturns the decision, as expected, clearing the way for at least 26 states to ban or severely limit abortion, workers in locations where the procedure will remain legal, such as Massachusetts, are anticipating an influx of patients from other states. This added workload will increase pressure on already understaffed clinics with underpaid staff, employees say. Being part of a union will help support existing workers and bring in new ones, they note — and would benefit patients, too.

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“We have been expecting Roe to fall,” said Cara Callahan, a patient navigator at the Springfield reproductive health care clinic. “It’s really looking like the amount of patients that we have is going to go up, and because we are still dealing with some of the effects of the pandemic, including short-staffing, we want to be able to care for these patients in a safe way.”

The nearly 200 nurses, educators, health care assistants, and more at clinics in Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and Marlborough seeking to join 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East want higher pay, lower staff-to-patient ratios, more say in scheduling, and clearer career advancement opportunities. Like other health care workers working on the front lines during the pandemic, they are burned out, and stress levels are rising as they contemplate what the future will hold if half the country cuts off access to abortion.

Planned Parenthood clinics in Massachusetts have already seen more patients from states such as Texas that have recently restricted abortions, workers say, and more are sure to follow. Numbers of transgender patients have also increased as treatment options have been restricted elsewhere and the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts rolled out gender-affirming hormone therapy as part of a larger initiative to improve trans health services.

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Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said the provider was in the process of reviewing the petition filed with the National Labor Relations Board. “As an organization that has always prioritized personal choice and agency in people’s personal lives, we respect and encourage our staff to exercise the same informed personal choices about their professional lives,” she said in a statement. “At this pivotal moment for abortion access, we look forward to having these conversations and continuing to support our staff and expand our ability to serve our patients.”

Planned Parenthood employees have been organizing around the country in recent years. SEIU represents nearly 1,000 workers in Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., and Colorado who have been on the front lines for years providing access to reproductive and gender-affirming health care, said 1199SEIU spokeswoman Marlishia Aho.

“This is a workforce that has seen continued attacks on those they care for, and it impacts their workplace environment too,” she said in an e-mail. “They want their voice to be heard — to improve their jobs and to protect the critical care they provide.”

In order to provide the best care for patients, employees need to be taken care of, too, said Beret Otero, a 36-year-old health care assistant who makes $20 an hour at the Boston Planned Parenthood clinic. To fully advocate for safe and legally protected care for patients, she said, she and her co-workers must also advocate for an equitable workplace for themselves.

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Reproductive rights are closely linked to labor rights, she added, both of which give people more control of their lives and allow them to thrive economically.

“They’re tied together in a way that’s inseparable,” Otero said. “Unionizing is an integral part of being able to provide access and care moving forward.”

Planned Parenthood has also been striving to be an antiracist organization, Callahan noted, and unionizing could help eliminate wage gaps and other disparities that disproportionately affect the people of color who make up a big part of the staff, as well as the patient population.

Callahan, 37, has worked for Planned Parenthood for nine years and makes $22 an hour doing outreach for patients who need regular appointments for HIV prevention and hormone therapy. With all the uncertainty about what will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it would help to feel more secure in her job, she said.

If conservatives were to push for a federal abortion ban, prompted by legal arguments cited in the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, abortion rights in Massachusetts could also come under fire. “Who knows what the country will look like in a year or so,” she said. “Having a staff that is unionized may allow us to have a little more control over what our work would look like in the future, worst-case scenario.”

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Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.