It was an amazing scene. For 90 minutes, five legislators sat stunned while more than 100 workers at Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center risked telling the truth. With story after story, the workers detailed deteriorating conditions at the state mental-health facility. There were violent assaults. Severe staff shortages. Unimaginable amounts of mandatory overtime.
Rep. Jim Abeler, who represents the Anoka district, labeled what he heard “intolerable.”
Three weeks later, workers met in private again. This time, it was DHS commissioner Lucinda Jesson and deputy commissioner Anne Barry who listened to workers share their desperation and frustrations.
“Things have got to change,” Local 1307 president Jackie Spanjers said. Within a week, that change started:
The change started because members of Local 1307 quit waiting for their bosses to fix things. Instead, they used their collective power to take action and go directly to those who could get things done.
Local 1307 represents about 240 front-line workers at Anoka. Most of them are human services technicians and licensed practical nurses. The hospital treats mentally ill patients who have been civilly committed by a court until they are fit to stand trial or to be transferred.
Many patients have additional issues – drug addiction or medical problems such as diabetes – that complicate their psychiatric treatment.
But staff say more patients also are violent, aggressive, or just plain unpredictable. “They get some real bad actors,” says Paul Thompson, chief steward for Local 1307.
Unfilled shifts leave employees stuck
The biggest problem was inadequate staffing, especially among HSTs. Between January 2012 and March 2013, Anoka lost 22 full-time HSTs. Not one of those vacancies was filled, the Local says.
One consequence of staff shortages was unfilled shifts. A lot of them. Two-week work schedules routinely had as many as 80 open shifts. If a co-worker did not volunteer to fill an open shift, the worker on the previous shift “got stuck.” They were forced to work mandatory overtime – 16 hours straight. Too often, “getting stuck” became a daily occurrence.
In addition, part-time staff routinely had to work full-time hours. LPN Donna Altmann was hired part-time, but says that, for 15 straight months, she worked at least 80 hours in every two-week pay period.
Another LPN, Ann Menard, pointed out that part-timers like her get only one weekend off each month – if they are lucky. “I have to schedule my entire life for those two days. I have to tell friends or family, you have to get married or have to get buried on those two days.”
“They were not letting us have lives outside of work,” Spanjers says. “Someone would say, ‘I have to pick up my kids from child care’ and they’d be told, ‘What’s more important: your family or your job?’”
Local 1307 tried to address staffing, scheduling, and safety issues through labor-management discussions. The response? What one union member called “the bobblehead” – a lot of shaking of heads among managers, but no action.
Tired of waiting
“I was so frustrated,” Spanjers says. “Paul and I could keep beating our heads against the wall. But in order for us to make any progress, the membership had to be the driving force.”
What the Local came up with was a plan to ratchet up pressure until members got action. The Local started with a letter that, within three days, 108 members signed. The letter first went to Anoka’s chief administrator, Nancy Webster Smith, and to Pat Carlson, who was then CEO of DHS’ State Operated Services, which oversaw Anoka.
When Carlson dragged her feet in responding, the Local went up the chain. The next letter went to Jesson and Barry. The letter after that went to Gov. Mark Dayton.
Meanwhile, the Local kept Abeler in the loop. When Carlson finally responded in writing – with a memo that Local leadership considered vague and full of alibis – the Local approached Abeler about gathering legislators to talk with workers directly. The result was a meeting March 27 in which front-line workers got to tell their stories face to face.
“The membership thought that if you really want to make change, you’ve got to be a part of it,” Spanjers says. “And they really opened up.”
Trying to get their lives back
The workers focused on how their jobs were taking a growing toll on their health and family lives.
Michael Richard talked about working 72 hours’ overtime in one two-week period. That’s almost the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
“I work the night shift,” says HST Alex Soyannwo. “If I get stuck working the day shift, I go home, come back to work that night, get stuck again. I’m lucky to get 8 hours’ sleep in two days.”
Those kind of hours leave workers fatigued and more likely to make mistakes. “It’s unsafe for us, it’s unsafe for patients,” Richard says.
“I love the money – don’t get me wrong,” Soyannwo says. “But you can’t plan anything with your family or anyone. What good is the money if it comes at the cost of my health or my family?”
Escaping downward cycle
The understaffing and excess hours were causing other problems. For example, workers couldn’t get vacation and holidays.
HST Darron Delvin says that on his unit, it was impossible for more than one AFSCME member to take vacation at the same time. “We used to be able to handle three vacations at once,” he says. “It’s been a year and a half since my last vacation, and it’s not for lack of trying. It is mathematically impossible to take all the vacation we have earned.”
The inability to take vacation impacts family life, Delvin says. That causes more workers to take sick leave, which causes more back-to-back shifts, which causes more burnout, which causes the cycle to repeat.
At the end of Jesson’s meeting with workers, she told them: “I’m a mother of four. I can’t imagine doing what some of you described. We should not be making you choose between your family and your job.”
Beginning the turnaround
Thompson expects the staffing changes that the workers forced will make that choice less necessary. “It’s incredible progress, and obviously they heard us,” Thompson says. “They heard our members. Once those positions are filled, the good news is – the great news is – more people will be able to get time off,” he says. “There should be a huge reduction in sticks, mandatory overtime.”
“It’s definitely not the fix,” Spanjers says. “But it’s a start.”
Thompson hopes the changes signal a deeper shift at Anoka. “Some of the supervisors have gotten it, that we’re done screwing around, frankly. You really can’t treat people like you had been.”