State hospital workers protest against assaults, staff cuts

NORWALK - Dozens of Metropolitan State Hospital employees chanted and waved picket signs in front of the hospital Wednesday, drawing attention to alleged ongoing assaults and staffing concerns at their facility and others overseen by the California Department of Mental Health (DMH).Workers shared personal stories of how they have been injured by patient assaults as well as their concerns for the individuals they care for, especially now that DMH proposes staffing cuts. The employees - part of the statewide Safety Now! Coalition of state-hospital staff - protested what they said were DMH's contradictory take on safety: The state department is calling for the layoff of hundreds of treatment professionals at Metropolitan and other state hospitals while at the same time being cited by Cal/OSHA for "serious" safety violations and being told to increase staffing. Metropolitan and Napa State Hospitals were cited last spring for "serious" safety violations leading to numerous assault injuries, including the October 2010 murder of psychiatric technician Donna Gross, but DMH is contesting these violations. Two more DMH hospitals - Atascadero and Patton - were cited March 1 for "serious" assault-related safety concerns; Coalinga State Hospital employees are awaiting results from a recent Cal/OSHA safety tour. While Cal/OSHA and legislators are calling on the department to improve state hospitals' safety and staffing, DMH has sent 114 layoff notices to Metropolitan State Hospital treatment staff, including psychiatrists, psychologists, rehabilitation therapists, social workers and psychiatric technicians, protestors claimed. California Assemblyman Michael Allen - whose district includes Napa State Hospital, where Gross was killed - has introduced Assembly Bill 2399 to compel DMH to implement the anti-assault safety programs called for in the Cal/OSHA citations that the department is contesting. Allen also has introduced Assembly Bill 2397 to maintain adequate treatment-staffing levels and to stop the layoff of hundreds of state-hospital employees. Frustrated at the "little progress in improving safety conditions" since Gross' killing, members of the California Assembly's Select Committee on State-Hospital Safety and two state senators wrote to DMH Director Cliff Allenby March 8 requesting a moratorium on state-hospital layoffs. Although not all of the 114 Metropolitan workers who received layoff notices may be let go, employees agree with legislators and Cal/OSHA that more staff, not fewer, are needed to provide the best and safest care possible at Metropolitan State Hospital and at other California state hospitals. Instead of laying off treatment staff and reducing services and safety, state-hospital employees say the department could save nearly $100 million per year by appropriately charging for civil-commitment beds at Metropolitan and Napa, replacing expensive Atascadero contract psychiatrists with civil-service psychiatrists and by cancelling Napa's training contract with U.C. Davis, among other ideas. "There may be times when budget cuts are necessary, but under no circumstances should safety be compromised," said senior psychiatric technician Carlos "Chuck" Garcia, a 14-year MSH employee and layoff-letter recipient.

********** Published: March 22, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 49