Westbrook City Councilor Claude Rwaganje speaks on the impact of the Abbott layoffs on the immigrant community at a Monday night meeting. Rwaganje said his nonprofit Prosperity ME, which serves immigrants in the community, has seen about 200 former Abbott employees reach out for housing assistance. Screen shot / Westbrook Community TV

The director of Prosperity ME is calling for the state to help after almost half the people laid off from Abbott Labs last week asked for housing assistance.

While Abbott hasn’t officially released the number of employees affected, Westbrook Mayor Mike Foley said of the 400 layoffs, 300 will impact Westbrook employees. Of the 300, 200 have reached out to Prosperity ME, a Portland-based nonprofit offering resources for immigrants and New Mainers.

The remaining layoffs will affect Scarborough employees, according to Karen Martin, executive director of Scarborough Economic Development Corp.

Abbott Labs makes and distributes COVID-19 test kits among other medical applications. Word of layoffs at its Scarborough and Westbrook locations surfaced last week.

Foley and company officials counter that the layoffs were anticipated, due to the temporary nature of jobs related to COVID-19 testing.

According to Claude Rwaganje, a Westbrook city councilor and director of Prosperity ME, many of those laid off are vulnerable immigrants and are looking for help with housing issues at his nonprofit.

Rwaganje, who is originally from Democratic Republic of Congo and administers a nonprofit that helps immigrants in the greater Portland area, said hundreds of vulnerable people also have concerns about the long-term impact on their rental and credit histories.

“Abbott was hiring so many people knowing this would happen, just hiring anybody and now there is a lot of issues,” Rwaganje said. “We need the Department of Labor to look at this; a lot of people are being thrown on their back. So retraining for these people to get back to work should be a priority.”

Both Foley and company spokesman Scott Stofel said the layoffs were foreseeable, as the jobs were created specifically for COVID-19 testing at the  former Olympia Sports facility in Westbrook and at a Southgate Road location in Scarborough.

“We’ve recently seen a significant, rapid decline in COVID-19 testing demand and anticipate this trend will continue,” Stofel told the American Journal. “Because of this, we are reducing our workforce that produces rapid tests in Westbrook and Scarborough.”

Rwaganje said over 200 former Abbott employees have asked for housing assistance since the layoffs.

“We have had over 200 people come to our office in the last week, so we are falling behind, but we are here to help,” Rwaganje said. “Nearly 99% of them are from Abbott.”

According to Rwaganje, the majority of people need money or help with legal issues and language barriers to avoid eviction and adverse effects to their credit, as well as help navigating the unemployment process to get benefits.

“We are working to help them quickly and working with their landlords so their landlords don’t report them and, in turn, create bad credit history that further hurts them,” Rwaganje said. “The fact they are facing a language barrier creates a problem for them to be able to do this on their own.”

Rwaganje said Prosperity ME’s housing assistance program is new, and staffers are already busy.

“Abbott is really the first group we’ve started helping and dealing with,” Rwaganje said.

Karen Martin, executive director of Scarborough Economic Development Corp., said Abbot warned them of layoffs, but there was no indication as to the impact on Scarborough residents, though it’s now estimated around 100 jobs were lost.
“Abbott has been steadily growing and investing in Scarborough over the years,” she said via email. “They are an important part of our manufacturing community.”
Abbott officials said they will work with Maine Department of Labor to help displaced workers, according to Martin.

Affected employees were offered severance packages, Stoffel said, as well as resources to find work elsewhere in the company.

Foley told the city council Monday that while the layoffs are rough, the new Abbott facility still netted 500 jobs in the city, considering the employees who are still there and that the facility wasn’t there before the pandemic.

Scarborough-based employees decreased from 750 to 650, netting 400 jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Martin.

“It is always difficult to hear about layoffs from any company, our thoughts and prayers are with affected employees as they seek new employment opportunities,” Foley said. “Abbott has been a great partner in the fight against COVID-19 and their mission to help us reach where we are has been achieved. We look forward to them continuing to be a great community partner here in Westbrook as they transition their business back to many of the other medical testing they provide.”

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