Over 2,000 post cards have been collected by workers and community supporters calling for passage of the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights.
March 12, 2012—UE Local 150 mental health workers from across North Carolina gathered at the state legislature on Tuesday, March 13 and delivered a strong message to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. That message, delivered through a press conference, media coverage and a silent protest inside the committee meeting, was "Listen to Workers." The union members were joined by Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and delivered 2,000 post cards demanding the passage of Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights (House Bill 287, Senate Bill 481).
The joint committee is the legislative body with authority over the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the employer of UE members who work in the state's mental hospitals. For months the UE Local 150 DHHS Council has requested the opportunity for workers to address the committee over serious problems that adversely affect mental health workers and their patients. The committee's co-chairs, Representative Dollar Dollar and Senator Louis Pate, have repeatedly denied their requests.
Although they were again denied the chance to speak at the March 13 committee meeting, the group of about 20 workers entered the committee meeting room. Adhering to the rule that restricts the right to carry signs inside the legislature, they wore red union T-shirts, and members pinned small signs to their shirts, each containing one letter. They lined themselves up to spell out the words "LISTEN TO WORKERS," as they stood before the committee in silence.
The group also delivered packets of information and a letter highlighting several issues of poor working and service conditions in state hospitals. These issues include high rates of worker injuries at Cherry Hospital; the sudden release of several hundred privatized workers who were not immediately replaced by state workers at Central Regional Hospital, resulting in severe understaffing and forced overtime; and the unjust firing of 10 workers, whose reinstatement UE150 helped win, as well as six other discharge cases still pending. These improper firings have thus far cost the state over $2 million in back wages, legal fees and training costs, and have imposed huge financial hardships and other burdens on the affected workers.
Kevin Yancey, a youth program assistant 2 at Murdoch, one of the speakers at the press conference, 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." He says the union got good press coverage - "We had at least three TV stations cover the event as well as AP news," and added, "We had a great time, I can't wait for the next time. I realize that, with the control of the house being in the hands of the Republican Party, we can expect that we're going to run across a lot of opposition. And we did have a touchy moment. From the moment that the head of security laid eyes on us, we could expect that we were going to have some opposition. He escorted us when we went into the general assembly, all the way in, and escorted us all the way out when we left. And he had this look like he could just spit bullets. And yet the union members were just so composed and in control, the way they conducted themselves.
Yancy says he knows the demonstration in the committee hearing had an impact, the legislators couldn't take their eyes off the UE members. "They looked like they were in wonderment, like they were trying to figure out what we were there for." Before leaving, "...we filed out to the front so that we could be seen by the chair of the committee and we faced them in the order we were in, and it spelled out exactly what we were there for, "Listen to the workers." And we stood there for 20 seconds and then we exited the building. And it was very powerful. We could see the smiles on the faces of some of the people who were there and saw us, because not everyone there is against our struggle."
UE Local 150 members around the state have collected over 2,000 postcards, and are continuing to collect more, as well as and many resolutions from churches, all calling for the passage of House Bill 287 (and the equivalent Senate Bill 481). This proposed legislation would make Local 150's Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights the law of the state. The Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights would recognize workers' rights to adequate staffing levels, a fair grievance procedure, a safe workplace, and the right to refuse excessive overtime, among other rights.
Injury logs at Cherry Hospital showed that workers had a higher than 40 percent chance of being badly injured in 2010, and a 32 percent chance in 2011. Recent worker complaints there sparked an investigation by OSHA that is still ongoing. Injury logs also show a 15 percent increase in 2011 in total workdays missed due to injuries at all DHHS state-operated facilities.
"There have been a number of serious injuries at Cherry Hospital recently, bones have been broken, one staff person was choked until unconscious, and the severity of the injuries is horrible," said Larsene Taylor, healthcare technician at Cherry Hospital and chair of the UE150 DHHS Council. "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. 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!"
Local 150 also notes that, despite official budgetary decisions that indicate that the legislature hasn't laid off any DHHS workers in state operated facilities, DHHS has in fact cut 1,179 positions in state mental health facilities since 2001. This has worsened the situation in units that were already severely understaffed.
"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," said Bernell Terry, a healthcare technician at Central Regional Hospital and UE150 chapter vice president. "We were already understaffed before all the agency workers were let go, and this has forced us to be severely understaffed."
The letter delivered by Local 150 members, called on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services to do three things before the start of the May short Legislative session: 1) Recommend to the standing committees passage of Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights, 2) Investigate why so many state mental health workers workers have been unfairly fired, quit or retired early over the last two years because of poor working conditions and 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 that are undermining the delivery of quality care.
Eugene Baker (Cherry Hospital), Bernell Terry (CRH), Saladin Muhammad (IWJC), John Long Jr. (CRH), Kevin Yancey (Murdoch Center), Larsene (Cherry Hospital) and Dante Strobino (UE Staff).