Members of UE local 150, the NC Public Service Workers Union, will be holding a demonstration this morning at 10:00 am at NC DHHS headquarters on the old Dorothea Dix Hospital campus at 101 Blair Drive, Raleigh. Workers are demanding that Sec. Aldona Wos meet with the union, extend Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and also grant workers “Safety, Rights and Raises”, which has become the slogan of their current campaign. Senator Don Davis along with Rev. Curtis Gatewood from the N.C. NAACP and Moral Monday movement plan to speak at the rally. UE 150 is inviting the public and all supporters to attend.
Organizer Dante Strobino explains the genesis of the event and some of the indignities visited upon state mental health workers in the following essay.
State mental health workers launch campaign for Safety, Rights and Raises
By Dante Strobino
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 5 ½ years she has worked as a healthcare technician at Central Regional Hospital in Butner, North Carolina, one of three state psychiatric hospitals. After paying essential bills for the family, Brandon said, she typically has less than $40 left for the month.
There in nothing unusual about Brandon’s story. In fact, most of the state’s 15,000 employees at the state-operated mental health facilities are living at or below the poverty level. An overwhelming number (82 percent) of healthcare technicians are stuck at bottom of their salary grade, no matter how much seniority they have. Many have worked in their jobs for five and ten years and are still making only around $25,000 a year. Like all state employees, they have not had a raise since 2008.
Most workers are forced to work second jobs to provide enough income to support their families and keep up with the ever-rising living costs. Many are forced to take on minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants to supplement their incomes.
But 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 worked at a second job can be more than exhausting. Overwork and fatigue makes 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 said, “We make low wages and are expected to buy these clothes (for work), 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 specific uniforms white tops, solid pants, hairnets and non-skid 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 Chic-Fil-A in Wake Forest several evenings each week.
When the Governor 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. Yet McCrory would rather tell state employees to tighten their belts and tell other poor residents that the state can’t afford to provide them health coverage.
Despite all this hardship and stress on the workforce, Gov. McCrory felt it was necessary to release a memo to DHHS employees in March 2013 telling them they would all have to sacrifice, find more efficiencies, and expect no pay raises in the foreseeable future. Yet Gov. McCrory and DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos somehow found at least $1.7 million to hand out in raises to under-qualified political appointees within the department.
The 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 with significant pay increases over what their predecessors were paid. Also Joe Hauck, vice president of a company headed by the husband of Sec. Wos, was given a contract capped at $310,000, to “reorganize, redirect and restructure the Department”, according to Diaz.
Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights and the Hauck Plan
Sec. Wos now claims that Hauck created a plan that will 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 will be unlikely 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 percen, and among registered nurses turnover is 46 percent. Similar turnover rates apply to all the state-operated facilities. According to Beverly Moriarty, a registered nurse, workers can’t wait to quit.
These turnover rates are due to cuts in staff levels, low wages, and dangerous work environments. Also driving down morale and driving up turnover are policies in 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 states institutions. These bare-bones units require employees to cover more clients and work more mandatory overtime. Workers are heavily pressured not to take any vacation or comp time, and placed under increasing stress.
State mental health workers who are members of UE local 150, North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, have been campaigning since 2008 for a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights. In February 2013, State Rep. Larry Bell (D-Clinton) introduced House Bill 130 that would grant these rights – the right to adequate staffing, the right to input on decisions, the right to a safe workplace, the right to refuse excessive overtime, the right to a family-supporting wage and more.
“They are on the outside looking in,” said Kevin Yancey, UE 150 statewide chief shop steward and youth program assistant II. He continued, “That’s why they cannot find a realistic solution to problems inside DHHS. Workers need a seat at the table so that we can help the administration navigate through a situation that they cannot see.”
Strobino, Brandon, Johnson, Moriarty, Yancey and Lunsford are all active members of the UE local 150.