Mental health workers demand safety, rights and raises

Durham, N.C. — Jessica Brandon, a mother of three whose 40-year-old husband has had four heart attacks, is the sole wage earner in her family. For the past five and a half years she has worked as a health care technician at Central Regional Hospital in Butner, N.C., one of three state psychiatric hospitals. Brandon says that after paying essential bills for the family, she typically has less than $40 left for the month.

There is nothing unusual about her story. In fact, most of the state’s 15,000 employees at mental health facilities are living at or below the poverty level. An overwhelming number of health care technicians — 82 percent — are stuck at the bottom of their salary grade, no matter their seniority.

Many have worked in their jobs for five to 10 years but still earn only around $25,000 a year. Like all state employees, they have not had a raise since 2008.

Most have to work second jobs to support their families and meet ever rising living costs. Often these are minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.

After working 40 to 60 hours a week cleaning, bathing, walking, entertaining, teaching and providing all the daily tasks required to keep their clients safe and active, the additional 10 to 20 hours at a second job can be more than exhausting. Overwork and fatigue make it very difficult to focus on the essential tasks of caring for those with mental illness.

Bonita Johnson, a food service assistant at Murdoch Center, says: “We make low wages and are expected to buy work clothes and keep lots of white tops clean, with our own money. If we aren’t paid right, we at least want help with our uniforms because we are expected to wear white tops, solid pants, hairnets and nonskid shoes, and are told to stay clean and stain free. At the same time, we are not supplied with funds, aprons or anything else to make these uniforms affordable.” Johnson works a second job at a Chick-fil-A in Wake Forest several evenings each week.

When Gov. Pat McCrory refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, he basically left an additional half-million poor people, who have no health insurance, to die. North Carolina could have received up to $16 billion in federal funding for Medicaid expansion over the next five years. McCrory would rather tell state employees and other poor residents to tighten their belts, that the state can’t afford to provide them health coverage.

Despite all this hardship and stress on the workforce, McCrory felt it was necessary to release a memo to Department of Health and Human Services employees in March 2013 saying they all would have to sacrifice, find more efficiencies and expect no pay raises in the foreseeable future. Yet McCrory and DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos somehow found at least $1.7 million to hand out raises to underqualified political appointees within the department.

Recipients of the governor’s generosity include Ricky Diaz and Matthew McKillip, two 24-year-old McCrory campaign staffers who were awarded $85,000 and $87,500 gigs, both at significant pay increases over their predecessors. Joe Hauck, vice president of a company headed by Wos’ spouse, was given a contract capped at $310,000 to “reorganize, redirect and restructure the Department,” according to Diaz.

Mental health workers’ Bill of Rights

Wos claims that Hauck has a plan to save the state $5 million by hiring more permanent nurses in the state facilities. Bringing in more permanent nurses, providing a more stable workforce, will definitely assist in improving patient care and reduce stress among workers. However, in the current climate of low morale and high turnover, this plan is not likely to save any money. Turnover of staff costs the state tens of millions of dollars each year. Since January 2012, turnover at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro is 40 percent; among registered nurses turnover is 46 percent. Similar turnover rates apply to all state-operated facilities. According to Beverly Moriarty, a registered nurse, workers can’t wait to quit.

These turnover rates are due to staff cuts, low wages and dangerous work environments. Also driving down morale and driving up turnover are policies on which staff have no input and whose contradictions often put employees in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t“ situations, in the words of former licensed practical nurse Bernice Lunsford. The best way to provide quality care to clients is to create stable jobs and respect workers’ basic rights.

According to information from DHHS Human Resources, there are 15 percent fewer filled positions since the so-called Mental Health Reform Plan was adopted in 2001, a reduction of 1,500 jobs. In the last three years alone, 619 positions have been cut (over 7 percent) at the state’s institutions.

Employees must cover more clients and work more mandatory overtime. They are heavily pressured not to take any vacation or comp time and are placed under increasing stress.

State mental health workers belonging to UE Local 150, North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, have been campaigning since 2008 for a Mental Health Workers’ Bill of Rights. In February, state Rep. Larry Bell (D-Clinton) introduced House Bill 130, which would grant rights to adequate staffing, input on decisions, a safe workplace, the right to refuse excessive overtime, a family-supporting wage and more.

Kevin Yancey, UE 150 statewide chief shop steward and youth program assistant, says, “Workers need a seat at the table so that we can help the administration navigate through a situation that they cannot see.”

The union’s DHHS Council held a demonstration on Nov. 14 at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. Workers demanded that Wos meet with the union, extend Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act and grant workers “safety, rights and raises,” the slogan of their current campaign.

Strobino is a field organizer with UE Local 150.