State Mental Health Employees Protest Sometimes Dangerous Conditions In Middletown

June 26, 2019

By Cassandra Day | The Middletown Press

MIDDLETOWN — More than 40 employees of the state’s mental health and maximum-security psychiatric facilities gathered in the hot sun Wednesday afternoon to demand better working conditions and adequate staffing, which has, in some cases, endangered the safety of patients and workers alike.

Members of the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 SEIU, which represents employees of Connecticut Valley Hospital and Whiting Forensic Hospital, held purple and yellow signs declaring “Help Us Help” in the commuter parking lot off Eastern Drive, near the entrance to the CVH campus.

Union leaders, employees and nurses spoke passionately about their plight during a press conference, held on the heels of the delivery of a petition to the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which garnered more than 700 signatures.

They are demanding safe staffing levels, sufficient training to respond to specific patient populations, proper administration of disciplinary measures, and better receptiveness to clinical staff recommendations.

“We’re only as strong as the voices we put out there,” said Kasey Nolan, a seven-year addiction counselor at CVH, who spoke about a woeful situation during weekly family education nights.

Last week, only four workers were on hand to help manage the gathering, instead of the required six, she said. Sometimes, attendance can swell to 50, between clients and families.

She pointed out two recent incidents during these sessions: an altercation that took place when a patient’s family member attacked staff, and another when a loved one gave contraband to a client.

“We’ve been begging for help. It’s falling on deaf ears,” Nolan said.

The rally follows a guilty verdict handed down to the lead defendant in the Whiting Forensic Hospital patient abuse case.

Mark Cusson, a supervisory forensic nurse at Whiting, was charged with eight counts of cruelty to persons, a felony, and eight counts of disorderly conduct in connection with the alleged abuse of a severely mentally ill patient at the facility during a two-week period in March 2017.

A jury found him guilty on three counts of cruelty to persons and five counts of disorderly conduct. He was acquitted of the other charges.

More than 30 Whiting employees were implicated in the abuse scandal and 10 were criminally charged with a range of offenses.

During the last four months, Whiting has had more than 50 patient-on-staff assaults, while CVH has reported 134. During that same period, Whiting experienced 40 patient-on-patient attacks, with CVH seeing more than 130, according to Avery Pittman, 1199 organizer in charge of both hospitals.

The workers’ list of demands include restoring nursing staff at Whiting, analysis of both hospitals conducted jointly by the administration and union delegates, meetings to discuss racial justice and disciplinary action, the escorting of Whiting patients off grounds with an agency police officer, the removal of nurses from conducting patient strip-search duties, and providing training and resources to implement new policies and ensure patient safety.

“Chronic understaffing, the exhaustion of workers in the building, and a lack of support of training from management and the administration is creating egregious conditions for the patients and egregious conditions for the members here,” Pittman said.

“Staffing levels at Connecticut Valley Hospital and Whiting Forensic Hospital have remained consistent or increased over the past several years. Additionally, DMHAS hospitals are regularly inspected by regulatory and accrediting bodies,” said Public Information Officer Diana Shaw.

“The department continues to actively recruit direct care staff at both hospitals to fill vacancies caused by attrition, including retirements,” Shaw said.

Bromley German works at Dutcher Hall.

“If you’re forcing people to work 18 to 20 hours day, day after day after day, what kind of health aspect is that for the patients and the staff? You’ve got staff who are overworked, staff what have no home life, staff whose health is going to be affected. How is that going to affect the way they interact with the patients?” he asked.

It’s typical for employees to be asked to voluntarily stay for overtime, however, when they can’t, it’s sometimes necessary to mandate workers, “which is disrupting their lives and exhausting to work an additional shift,” said Susan McKinley, a psychiatric security review board monitor at Whiting.

DMHAS leadership has been in ongoing discussions over the past 18 months with SEIU and its members to address the concerns they have raised, Shaw said.

“They know we’re burnt out. I always tell them, ‘Who’s helping the help?’ and they tell me, ‘Well, we’re paying you,” said Kelly Pinder, a mental health assistant at Whiting’s Dutcher Hall. He has been asking since April to take a leave of absence without pay so he doesn’t deplete his FMLA benefits.

His superiors know he suffers from PTSD, Pinder said, but still refuse his request.

“Recruitment has to be the No. 1 priority,” said Stephan Bobb, a mental health assistant at CVH’s Woodward Hall. He also called for fairness when supervisors discipline their employees.

“Many of our membership are being questioned by management without being told their Weingarten Rights. They have a right to organize a union, they have a right to have a union delegate there to make sure your rights as a worker are being followed, and they’re not doing that,” Bobb said.

New employees are discovering the two hospitals are difficult places to work, said Local 1199 Vice President Paul Fortier.

“Strife: A lot of people are coming here and saying, ‘You know what? I didn’t come here for this.’ People who are leaving regularly expecting them to fill the slots and it’s just not happening.”

“The department remains committed to providing a positive and safe environment that promotes dignity and recovery. Over the past year, we have had formal and informal discussions with union leadership and members,” Shaw said.

“The agency is committed to continuing these efforts to ensure that we keep working collaboratively to implement strategies and approaches that improve our system of care.”