Mental Health Workers Challenge Lawmakers
Posted by raleighfist on April 5, 2012
By Dante Strobino
Public mental health workers from across North Carolina, members of United Electrical Workers Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, with support from Rev. William Barber II, President of N.C. NAACP, and members of Occupy Raleigh converged on the state legislature on March 13 to deliver a message to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.
Workers in UE 150 have been fighting for the state to pass House Bill 287 (SB 481), the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights. However, even after months of written requests, State Rep. Nelson Dollar and Sen. Louis Pate denied front-line workers even five minutes to share their expertise and concerns.
Since the workers were not allowed to address the meeting, they went inside the committee room with one letter pinned to each worker’s shirt, spelling out “LISTEN TO WORKERS.” They stood before the committee in silence making their statement that the workers must have a voice to ensure standards for quality care.
The workers delivered packets of information and a letter about the poor working and service conditions that workers and patients currently face, including 1) continuously and outrageously high rates of worker injuries at Cherry Hospital; 2) the sudden release of several hundred agency-hired, privatized workers without immediate replacement with state workers at Central Regional Hospital, causing severe understaffing and forced overtime; and 3) the unfair discharge of 10 workers whom UE 150 helped reinstate over the last 18 months, along with six more cases still pending.
These cases have cost the state more than $2 million in back wages, legal fees and training, and have forced workers to bear a huge burden of upfront costs, including cashing out their retirement funds early.
To address the issues that face all workers in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights would give workers the right to adequate staffing levels, training, a fair grievance procedure, the right to a safe workplace and the right to refuse excessive overtime, among other rights.
UE 150 members around the state have collected more than 2,000 postcards (and plan to collect over 10,000 before the legislature opens in May) and many resolutions from churches calling for passage of the bill.
At a press conference called by UE 150, Kevin Yancey, a youth program assistant 2 at Murdoch Developmental Center in Butner, N.C., explained why they went to the legislature. “The more we would call the legislative members, the less we would hear from them. We’d hear from their staff that they’d ‘get back to us,’ but they’d never get back to us.”
Cuts cause workplace injuries
Occupational Safety and Health and injury logs at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., showed that workers had more than a 40 percent chance of getting a bad injury in 2010 and a 32 percent chance in 2011. Workers’ recent complaints there led to an investigation that is currently being conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These logs show a large increase in total days missed from work due to injuries at all state-operated facilities in the DHHS.
“There are a number of serious injuries at Cherry Hospital recently, bones have been broken, one staff was choked unconscious, and the severity of the injuries is horrible. That is part of the reason that I will be retiring early at age 62, after 21 years of service to the state. I want to be able to enjoy my retirement and not suffer from workplace injury,” stated Larsene Taylor, health-care technician at Cherry Hospital and Chair of UE 150 DHHS Council. “All the issues that workers spoke out about today are core elements of our Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights. Our voices must be heard!”
DHHS has cut 1,179 positions in state mental health facilities since the 2001 Mental Health Reform plan was implemented, which contributed further to already severely understaffed units. This includes 321 positions cut since June 2010.
“Several hundred agency-privatized workers were let go by Central Regional Hospital. However, they did not hire nearly enough state workers to replace them. Most units are understaffed by a handful of workers,” stated Bernell Terry, health-care technician at Central Regional Hospital, and UE 150 Chapter Vice President. “We were already understaffed before all the agency workers were let go. This has forced us to be severely understaffed.”
The lack of adequate resources and fair standards, as described in the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights, is the true cause of the serious problems undermining the efforts by workers to provide quality care to mental health patients and patients with disabilities. The department and the media like to blame the workers.
The letter delivered by UE 150 members calls on the committee to do the following before the beginning of the May legislative session: 1) recommend passage of the Bill of Rights to the standing committees; 2) investigate the number of workers who have been unfairly fired, who quit or who have retired early over the last two years as a result of poor working conditions and a hostile work environment; and 3) send delegations of legislators to all state mental health facilities to hear directly from the workers, without interference by management, about the working conditions they face that make it too difficult to provide quality care.
The workers in the union will be meeting to discuss the next steps to assure their voices are heard.