05/28/08 — Mental health employees picket Cherry Hospital

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Mental health employees picket Cherry Hospital

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 28, 2008 1:47 PM

Concerned about unsafe working conditions that they say have gotten worse since the state began its mental health reforms in 2001, about 25 members of the union UE Local 150 took to the street in front of Cherry Hospital Tuesday afternoon demanding action.

But even they acknowledged that much of that change would have to come from the state level.

"We want fairness and justice for the workers," Cherry Hospital health care technician Larsene Taylor said.

Taylor, who has been at Cherry for 16 years, also serves as secretary/treasurer for the Cherry Hospital chapter of UE Local 150, which includes the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union.

She explained that they were making the noon protest to raise awareness of the situations and conditions they face every day -- and to promote the mental health workers' public hearing on Thursday in Raleigh.

There, she explained that they will be hoping to address several issues, including turnover, wages, mandatory overtime and safety -- all things that Cherry Hospital Director Dr. Jack St. Clair acknowledged are problems.

"We just want our voice heard," Taylor said. "We're not treated right. We have a workers' bill of rights that we are asking for.

"But this has not just started, it has been going on. It's because of the crisis in the system reforms."

In fact, said Teresa Howell, an 18-year veteran of the state system and a med nurse at Cherry for the last eight, morale "is the worst I've ever seen it."

At Cherry, as at other state psychiatric institutions, the 400 health care technicians, who are all required to be at least certified nursing assistants, do the brunt of the work, attending to the patients' daily needs.

There is supposed to be at least a 5:1 ratio, not counting those cases where patients, such as those considered suicide risks, may need special attention.

On Tuesday, there were 253 patients -- including 13 on suicide watch -- at Cherry, which was enough to put the hospital into diversion status, which basically means it's full and that new incoming patients have to be diverted elsewhere.

The hospital, though, only has about 1,100 employees filling each three-shift, 24-hour period -- at least 50 less than ideal.

However, because of illnesses or other absences, the high number of patients and the low number of staffers, some of those workers were likely to be pulling mandatory overtime -- one of the group's largest complaints.

"There needs to be a law that bans it or limits it," Taylor said. "What you're doing is burning your workers out."

Unfortunately, St. Claire said that while he agrees it's not good for safety or morale, they're often left with little choice, occasionally asking employees to work up to 24 hours of overtime per week.

"On rare occasions we might exceed that," he admitted. "But everyone who comes here is told the hours are subject to change and that that includes overtime. Everyone knows the needs of the facility have to be a priority."

Still, he knows that people break down eventually, and explained that they do try to work with employees when possible to meet their individual needs.

He also explained that they're working to create as safe a work environment as possible under the circumstances -- another top concern of the union.

"They're looking at patient safety, not staff safety," health care tech Corey Bell said.

"If people in the community understood what we deal with, they'd be amazed," Ms. Howell said. "And then they want to condemn us ..."

Meaning, she explained, that if anything happens to the patients, it's more likely to make the news than are the 11 employees injured by patients during the last two to three weeks.

But there, too, St. Clair emphasized that at Cherry, he feels they're doing all they can by training staff to recognize the signs of a patient about to lose control, having a responsive coding system, teaching basic "therapeutic holds" and other soft defensive and restraining techniques, and the proper use of medicine and restraints, as well as by holding debriefing sessions after each incident.

"Many of those concerns are serious. We have patients who are very volatile and very dangerous. Safety is an issue," he said, explaining that while many injuries are relatively minor -- bruises, cuts, pulled muscles or wrenched joints often requiring, at most, only a couple of days off work -- there are some patients like the man who recently ripped the sink out of the wall in his room, who can pose a threat.

And while he agreed that even minor injuries are unacceptable, he believes they have become, in many ways, a byproduct of the 2001 system reforms.

"The problem is, we're dealing with more patients and patients with a much higher level of acuity than before," he said. "But it's a system-wide problem, not just Goldsboro."

Unfortunately, he added, the best solutions are out of his hands.

"I think we've been very pro-active in addressing these issues. I think, by and large, we offer more in these areas than the other hospitals do, but I agree with a large part of what they're saying," he said. "We need more staff and we need to pay our staff better wages, and I think a big part of it is getting those legislators on board."

And while he does expect about two dozen more health care techs and other employees to come on board in the next few weeks, resolving those concerns is one of the goals of Thursday's event, which at least one local legislator, Larry Bell, D-Sampson, is slated to attend.

Scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m., the rally will be held at the Wake County Office Park Commons Building, 4001 Carya Drive, at the corner of Poole Roads, just off the I-440 beltline at exit 15. A pre-hearing rally will be held at the location from 5 to 5:30 p.m.