Labor Dispute
12:21 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Mental Health Clinicians In Thurston, Mason And Grays Harbor Counties Go On Strike

More than 150 case managers, therapists and other employees of Behavioral Health Resources have walked off the job for a three-day strike. The agency provides mental-health and substance-abuse services in Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties, mostly to Medicaid recipients.

The agency is in deep financial straits and had to take out a line of credit to make payroll in December.

The clinicians, who are represented by SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, have been bargaining for a new contract for almost a year. They say they’re willing to make concessions, but the two sides haven’t been able to reach an agreement, and management declared impasse and imposed a new contract.

Ramona Marshall, a case manager and therapist who’s worked at BHR for 31 years, says there are a number of reasons why they’ve gone on strike, but one centers around the issue of improving productivity.

Union members’ last contract, signed in 2011, requires them to reach five billable hours a day, and the new contract continues that requirement. Next month, BHR will start disciplining employees who don’t reach that amount. 

`Shame And Blame' Atmosphere

Marshall says the workers are being punished for things that are out of their control, like clients not showing up for appointments, for example. And she says if they spend a lot of time driving to visit clients, that time in the car isn’t billable under parameters set by the agency’s funders. She says BHR has an atmosphere of "shame and blame."

“It’s harder for us to do outreach for the most vulnerable and unstable clients because that ends up requiring a lot more non-billable activities,” Marshall said. “So we get worried about our clients getting the best and quality care that they could be getting.”

`Strapped To The Gills'

But BHR executives say improving productivity is key to making the agency financially viable.

“We are financially strapped to the gills right now,” said Alliea Phipps, director of community relations at BHR. Having employees achieve five billable hours a day “is crucial to us being able to keep our doors open.”

Phipps says because of the strike, outpatient services such as therapy appointments have been canceled. Many other services like inpatient treatment and psychiatric appointments will continue during the walkout.