Monday, September 25, 2006

Florida Mental Health Workers Make Progress After Attendant's Death

Public employees do jobs that most of us don't even like to think about. For example, criminal defendants who are found incompetent to continue with court proceedings because of mental illness, retardation or autism, or who are acquitted of felony charges -- by reason of insanity? Where do they go? Who takes care of them? Who cares?

Well, in Florida, it's the attendants at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. What's it like to work there in modern times? You get spit on, beaten up regularly, sometimes killed, threatened with discipline if you complain and no one really appreciates the job you do or how dangerous it is. The only bright spot is that they have a union that's willing to fight for them.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of Florida State Hospital mental health attendant, James Smith, who had a heart attack after coming to the aid of another attendant who was being attacked by a patient. The workers at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee had complained about understaffing and frequent fights with patients who are criminal offenders sent to the hospital as mentally unfit for trial or for psychiatric evaluation. A recent state audit had confirmed understaffing and a sharp rise in violent assaults against staff.

Earlier this week, the workers and their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), met with state legislators to describe conditions in the hospital and how "they are frequently assaulted, spat upon and threatened by criminally insane patients." The workers blamed Smiths death on understaffing, although the hospital denied it.
Doris Cobb, the shift supervisor, disputed DCF claims that there were 18 employees on duty that evening -- well over the minimum staffing level of 12 for four hospital units. Cobb said Smith and Doug Harris, the injured coworker, were watching 25 patients and a third attendant was working in a "chart room" off of the hospital floor when the incident occurred.
For the hard and dangerous work they do, public employees in Florida are rewarded by having no right to a safe workplace. Like public employees in 24 other states, Florida public employees are not covered by OSHA. The state had a non-federally approved state law covering public employee health and safety until it was repealed in 2000.

It not only takes some courage to work in these dangerous facilities, but it also took some courage for the workers to testify before their lawmakers about their working conditions:
Several employees expressed fear of losing their jobs or being placed on undesirable work shifts for speaking out. Cobb and other workers and supervisors said, however, that Smith's death and many years of legislative inaction on hospital conditions left them no choice.

The Department of Children and Families denied that there would be any retaliation against staff members for publicly discussing working conditions at the meeting, which was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
In any case, the workers had finally had enough and were not about to be quiet about the people they are assigned to care for, and the lack of support they get:
'When they're in jail, they're 'inmates,' but when they come to us, they're 'residents,'" Cobb said, drawing loud applause and shouts of approval. "Then they go back to jail and they're 'inmates' again."

Joann Williams said she suffered a back injury when a patient attacked her.

"From the Department of Corrections or wherever they come from, those residents we get are still murderers," she said. "On the floor where I work, our minimum coverage is two . . . and we have no protection either."

Williams added, "We're trained to say, 'Excuse my touch,' and ask their permission to touch them - and I can only touch the resident in a way that they will not feel threatened."

Again, heads around her nodded.


Employee Verdell Sutton, who has almost 24 years' service, displayed a knee scarred by reconstructive surgery she underwent after intervening in one patient's attack on another.

"If they kill one of us, what happens? They're still 'residents,' " she said. "When we do our jobs, we have a right to be protected."
And they weren't alone. Program specialist Frankie Duncan
who marked her 27th anniversary at the hospital on Wednesday, grabbed the microphone for an informal straw poll.

"If you have either been assaulted or involved in a fight where you feared for your own safety and your life, would you please raise your hands?'' she said. Everyone in the room raised a hand as Duncan turned toward the lawmakers and said, "That ought to show you something because this is just a random sampling - it looks like this all over the hospital."
Meanwhile, the state announced that it is planning on adding more beds and staff to the unit, but instead of hiring permanent employees, they're contracting out the new positions to a private company. The privatized workers will have no no insurance, vacation, job security or other benefits -- and no union protection. At least the new workers won't be complaining much about conditions at the facility.

In addition to safer working conditions, the employees are also trying to get the same 3 percent special-risk retirement credit that Florida police, firefighter and corrections officers receive, so they can retire at a younger age without loss of benefits.
Florida state Senator Al Lawson and Representative Curtis Richardson, both Tallahassee Democrats, told workers at the overflow meeting that they "have assurances from the Department of Children and Families to extend "special risk" retirement benefits to the hospital attendants."
Department representatives confirmed that promise:
Children and Families Secretary Lucy Hadi said her department will support special-risk retirement credit for the unit treatment and rehabilitation employees and will ask the 2007 Legislature to improve minimum staffing levels at the hospital.
Sounds good. We'll be keeping an eye on them. And while they're at it, maybe they should make sure those staffing levels are real and filled with full time employees that have a stake in the system. Early retirement is good – if you live that long and you're health enough to enjoy retirement. Too bad it had to take the death of James Smith to get something done.