UE 150 Overturns Three DHHS Firings In Fight for Mental Health Workers' Bill of Rights
posted September 20, 2010

UE Local 150 has won a ruling that three workers at Central State Regional Hospital were unjustly fired. In a case that the union fought through the grievance procedure for nearly two years, a state administrative law judge ruled on September 20 that the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) did not have just cause to fire nurse Patricia Swann and health care technicians John Long Jr. and Fred Gooch. He ordered the workers reinstated and made whole for their losses, including back pay and legal fees.

The three were one duty at the state mental health hospital in October 2008 when a 24-year-old male patient resisted having blood drawn for tests that had been ordered by a doctor, who was present. The three employees restrained the patient, but not in the manner prescribed by the hospital's procedures. Although the patient was not injured, the hospital fired the three employees through DHHS's "zero tolerance policy" under which workers can be fired on false accusations of abusing patients. The union charges that the policy increases the dangers of serious injuries to employees at the hands of unstable and sometimes violent patients – dangers that are becoming worse due to understaffing.

The workers said they were shorthanded and had not received sufficient training in how to draw blood from a resisting patient. After a hearing that too several days, the judge ruled in their favor.

Through the long fight for justice for these three workers, their fellow workers participated in rallies and demonstrations on their behalf. UE 150 stewards at Central State filed their grievances, and helped gather evidence and witnesses. Union steward Bernice Lunsford organized prayer vigils in support of the grievants, and Cornell Hendricks mobilized people to attend the hearing.

But public workers in North Carolina don't have the kind of grievance procedure that protects most UE members. Because the law does not allow them to negotiate a contract, their so-called grievance procedure is not the product of collective bargaining, but rather a unilateral creation of the state. It lacks many of the protections in UE-negotiated grievance procedures, and is even weaker than similar state-imposed procedures in Virginia and West Virginia. In those states a worker at least has the right to be represented by a steward in grievance meetings, but not so in North Carolina. Management refused to allow Lunsford and Hendricks to represent the fired workers in grievance meetings.

In the hearing before the administrative law judge, Swann, Long and Gooch were represented by Attorney Elizabeth Haddix, who often assists Local 150.

The union is now planning speak-outs and meetings around the state to publicize this ruling. It is necessary to mobilize support for the union's victory because, in another injustice of the North Carolina public employment system, the State Personnel Commission has the legal power to overturn the judge's decision, without conducting a hearing or seeing the evidence, as the judge did.

UE Local 150 sees the fight these three workers' jobs as part of the larger fight for a "Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights" and public employee bargaining. The union's victory over this firings also strikes a blow against DHHS's rigid and unfair "zero tolerance policy." But on the day of the ruling, DHHS Secretary Lanier Cansler was defensive. "We will continue to enforce the zero tolerance policy," he told a reporter.