Dental therapist Claire Roesler shows off the equipment she uses at the Penobscot Community Health Care’s dental center in Bangor in March. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A Bangor dental clinic serving low-income patients has begun to hire after firing roughly half of its staff last month, but it is still not clear if it will offer all the services that it did before the abrupt move.

Penobscot Community Health Care’s dental clinic laid off 31 of 65 employees in November, including dentists, dental assistants, hygienists and technicians, as part of what it called a restructuring effort. The nonprofit clinic has since hired 11 new staffers and a full-time trainer for dental assistants, said spokesperson Kate Carlisle.

The move came as a surprise to observers amid a pandemic worker shortage. Details of the restructuring are still scant, including how many more the clinic will hire or whether it will shed services permanently. Former employees also said they were barred from speaking publicly about the layoffs under a severance agreement with the clinic.

PCHC is one of four low-cost dental care providers in Penobscot County, and the only in Bangor that accepts MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. One former dental resident, Dr. Precious Bieni, said the clinic had discussed restructuring in her last semester, but the layoffs took her by surprise after she finished work there in July.

“My impression during my time there was that they were trying to expand the clinic and expand the dental therapist program,” she said.

Three laid-off workers spoke to the Bangor Daily News on condition of anonymity because they had to sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for two weeks’ severance pay. Carlisle declined to confirm whether any of the 31 laid-off staff were given severance or required to sign nondisclosure agreements, saying the nonprofit generally includes severance that depends on years of services and other factors.

Carlisle also previously declined to provide details about what the restructuring process entailed, nor how many former PCHC dental staff could expect to be rehired for new roles. She did not say whether some dental services were being eliminated.

The three workers said that they and their laid-off colleagues were informed of the downsizing during a meeting with management, where they were told the clinic was restructuring and that they were being fired.

PCHC said at the time of the layoffs that staff would be invited to apply for “newly redefined provider roles,” but one worker said she didn’t see a job listing for her old role until last week after she had already secured a new job. Another laid-off staffer who said she had been at PCHC for more than a decade reapplied for her old job but was rejected.

Nondisclosure agreements in these settings are unusual but not rare, said John Gale, a University of Southern Maine researcher and president of the National Rural Health Association. Businesses often require them to protect proprietary information, but now often rely on them to protect reputations in the age of social media, Gale said.

“I don’t know what those employees would know that would harm their business model,” Gale said. “I think it’s a little like blackmail to a certain extent, [to say], ‘We laid you off. we’re gonna give you two weeks severance, but we want non-disclosure agreements’.”

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to