By Ulya Aligulova 

As demand declines for COVID-19 tests, Abbott Labs, manufacturer of virus testing kits and other medical equipment, has let go hundreds of workers at its factories in Westbrook and Scarborough. The company received Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their rapid COVID-19 tests in March 2020 and has been manufacturing the testing kits ever since. In May 2020, the company announced that it was expanding its workforce and would employ approximately 1,200 people, including at its new facilities in Scarborough and Westbrook. Of the new hires, 300 were slated to remain long-term, the company said last August. So far, at least 400 people have been laid off in recent cuts. 

“Hundreds of employees are being let off – not all of them at the same time, but I’m told that in the end it will be more than a thousand employees,” said Dieudonne Nzeyimana, director of housing at ProsperityME. 

“They started by letting go employees hired through temporary employment agencies, but since [mid-July] we’ve been having cases of full-time employees being fired, too. The clients we’ve dealt with didn’t receive any notice. They’d come to work and were told that they had been fired. Some would only get a text message.”  

According to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), employers must provide advance notification to workers when faced with a plant closing or mass layoff. The Maine Department of Labor received a WARN notice from Abbott in July announcing that 310 employees were being laid off. However, because the end of temporary work contracts are not included in the WARN Act, companies aren’t obligated to give any prior notice to the Department of Labor or to the employees themselves before letting them go. No one knows exactly how many temporary workers have been affected by the Abbott layoffs. 

Nzeyimana said that, so far, about 250 clients have asked ProsperityME for help as a direct result of the Abbott layoffs. The nonprofit, headed by founder Claude Rwaganje, has submitted over 100 applications on behalf of clients for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This program is managed by MaineHousing, with other organizations such as the Opportunity Alliance also helping people in need apply for assistance. ProsperityME has a multilingual staff that assists clients with filing applications and remains connected to them until they are approved for assistance. 

“We’ve been struggling with the documentation required for the program because when a client applies, we need to see their history in documents,” Nzeyimana said. “But in many cases, we don’t have them, so we have to rely on secondary information. Some clients we are assisting don’t even have any pay stubs. The temporary agencies through which our clients were hired didn’t give them any documents or pay stubs, or any paperwork showing that they’ve lost their employment. We suspect it’s because they hope to keep the former Abbott workers in their [temporary agency] network, since if they provide them with other employment, they’re paid for that.” 

In the beginning of the Abbott layoffs, ProsperityME helped clients with both housing assistance and claims for unemployment benefits, but as the numbers of applicants mushroomed, they paused the unemployment applications. “Since one unemployment application takes so much time, if we do them, we’re going to be able to serve many fewer people for emergency rental assistance,” Nzeyimana explained. 

A lot of the people hired last year were immigrants. The companies are aware of the vulnerability of these people. Most immigrants feel so vulnerable that they don’t want to argue for their rights unless they’re accompanied by some organization to defend them.

Dieudonne Nzeyimana

“We have cases where landlords are threatening eviction, even though there’s a [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC mandated moratorium that’s extended till July 31st. Other landlords don’t give any leases to their tenants. Sometimes people live as co-tenants with others who don’t want to document the arrangement. I’ve had a client who couldn’t document her need for assistance because she couldn’t prove that she’s paying rent since the primary tenant wouldn’t provide any letter saying she does. So she had to move to a more expensive place, just so she could show that she has a rental contract, which is required in order to apply for assistance.” 

Nzeyimana explained that clients coming to ProsperityME complain that government programs don’t work well. The application processes can take a while, and people lose trust if they don’t hear back for many weeks. And some people think the assistance comes in the form of loans that must be repaid in the future. 

“We need to earn people’s trust because, until they see someone actually helped by these programs, they tend to be skeptical,” Nzeyimana said. “Immigrants are also very careful nowadays about filing for any benefits. The previous administration had some policies that denied green cards or citizenship because someone, at some point, was on a benefits program. So now there are people who are in need, but are still reluctant to apply for assistance because they think it may end up affecting their immigration application.” 

Many other nonprofit institutions and community organizations also offer help to those who recently have lost their jobs. “A lot of people in our community who were laid off have come to us seeking advice, wanting to know where they go from here,” said Nguizani Nsiona, president of the Angolan Community of Maine “The people asking us for help are mostly Angolans, but not exclusively. A lot of these people are uninformed – they don’t know what assistance or benefits are available to them. We’ve made an informational video about what to expect when laid off, how to get benefits, what to do if you can’t find another job immediately. We also help people to apply for unemployment, food stamps, and other benefits, as well as set them up with social workers at Opportunity Alliance.” 

Martha Stein, executive director of the nonprofit Hope Acts, said, “We didn’t have advance warning about the layoffs, but we did have some signs. A few months ago, a handful of people started coming into Hope House and telling us that they didn’t have their job at Abbott anymore. I’ve heard of people showing up one day at work and being told that same day it’s their last day. I haven’t talked to anyone who was told they were given even a couple weeks of notice.” Hope Acts works with newly arrived asylum seekers, offering various forms of assistance including English classes, help with accessing different services and understanding documents, gift cards to supermarkets, and help communicating with landlords. 

“Since my organization deals with the newest arrivals, everyone we’ve worked with has found a job through a temp agency,” Stein said. “These people aren’t native [English] speakers, so there’s a wide range of misunderstanding and confusion about what’s going on among those laid off. Many people we work with live paycheck to paycheck. And if you are fired, it takes a while to find a new job and get your first paycheck. These people don’t have the luxury of time, and everything starts falling apart rapidly.” 

Stein said she has tried to contact Abbott labs several times but has not gotten any response. “I feel like they’ve treated people like they’re just part of a machine,” she said. “And now Maine Department of Labor is doing information sessions about how to apply for unemployment and rental assistance. They’re doing these sessions in about six different languages. That gives you an idea of just how many immigrants worked at Abbott. If the state had been notified in advance, they could’ve set these things up much earlier, with less chaos and suffering.”