Behavioral Health workers set strike

ahobbs@theolympian.comMarch 5, 2014 

A therapist leads a pro-labor work song along with fellow staff members outside Behavioral Health Resources during a picketing demanding improved wage structure and client support from BHR. (The Olympian file, 1999)

STEVE BLOOM

Employees at the cash-strapped Behavioral Health Resources have scheduled a weekend-long strike in response to contract negotiations.

SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents about two-thirds of the mental health provider’s 293 employees, announced plans for the strike this week. Unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the strike will begin at 8 a.m. March 14 and will end at 7:59 a.m. March 17.

The strike would affect BHR offices at eight locations across Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties. Outpatient services would cease during the strike, and BHR is already rescheduling appointments with patients, spokeswoman Alliea Phipps said. Crisis services and medication delivery will continue, she added.

However, hospitals and jails in the three-county area will feel the impact if a strike takes place.

“We realize many of the hospitals are at full capacity, but during that long weekend, they will have to take those patients. Same thing with the jails,” said Phipps, noting the challenge of rescheduling clients who don’t own a phone.

In response to the upcoming strike, BHR will meet with union representatives March 12 for more negotiations.

BHR and the union have been deadlocked since the original labor contract expired in March 2013. One of the main conflicts involves the increased cost of employee medical benefits in the new health plan. BHR had presented its final offer in November, and implemented the new plan March 1.

BHR serves 10,000 low-income and homeless patients each year with mental health and addiction recovery services. The nonprofit organization has fallen on hard financial times and currently spends more than it earns. The threat of bankruptcy also looms: The organization’s operating cash fell from $2.7 million in Dec. 2012 to $702,214 in Dec. 2013.

Aside from rising health insurance costs, a key financial problem is linked to the lack of “billable hours” because of a high number of no-shows by clients. BHR’s state and federal funding is managed through a contract with the Thurston Mason Regional Support Network. Although therapists are paid regardless of whether a client shows up to an appointment, BHR is unable to bill the support network for that cost. By one therapist’s estimate, nearly one in three appointments results in a no-show.

On a side note, the possible closure of BHR has spurred a handful of bakeries into charity mode. Bill’s XL Bakery in Hoquiam, Sweet Shack Bakery and Tea House in Shelton, and Wagner’s European Bakery and Café in Olympia will donate a portion of proceeds from baked goods to benefit BHR this month.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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