Hundreds of mental health workers in western Massachusetts have gone on strike to protest a contract stalemate with a taxpayer-funded social service agency.
Picket lines went up this morning at several offices of Clinical & Support Options ( CSO), one of the region’s leading providers of emergency mental health interventions, violence prevention, substance abuse treatment, and other services to thousands of children and families.
The strike by front-line clinicians and crisis workers, who are represented by Service Employees International Union local 509, is scheduled to last three days, according to union spokesman Jason Stephany.
" The idea is to send a clear message to management here that they need to respect and value mental health services without disrupting client care for a significant period of time," he said.
The union, which represents 350 employees at CSO, has been bargaining for a new contract since last fall. A federal mediator met with the two sides as recently as Tuesday night.
About 75 workers and their supporters rallied Wednesday morning outside the Northampton building where CSO has its administrative offices. Similar rallies were scheduled over the course of the strike at clinics in Springfield, Greenfield, Athol and Pittsfield.
CSO said 75 percent of its workers make at least $15 per hour, and clinicians are paid $34-$36 per hour. But, the union counters that because a majority of the staff is paid on a fee-for-services basis the pay does not reflect actual time spent with patients or the hours required to fill out paperwork.
Stephanie Agnew, a Northampton-based outpatient clinician who is a member of the union bargaining team, said along with higher wages in a new contract they want a better retirement plan, higher mileage reimbursements, and a change in productivity demands.
" I carry a caseload of 24 clients and I am a half-time clinician. A full-time caseload is expected to be roughly twice that and we just don't have the energy to maintain that for the level of care our clients need, " she said.
CSO clinics remain open. The waiting room one floor down from the administrative offices in Northampton was empty at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
CSO President and CEO Karin Jeffers said clinicians, knowing the strike was coming, apparently rescheduled appointments. Jeffers said no replacements have been hired, but there is staff on-call to respond to emergencies.
" We are most concerned about covering for our clients and making sure they have the services they need," she said. " We will take it day-by-day to see what the overall impact is."
Jeffers said over 90 percent of CSO’s $25 million annual budget is funded from Medicaid and various state contracts.
" I would ask the public, rather than make this a fight between management and union. to advocate with your legislators to make sure the funding for mental health services is adequate so we can support workers as they deserve to be, " Jeffers said in an interview.
On the picket line, strikers passed out leaflets urging people to call Jeffers to urge her to “come to a fair agreement.” The union also distributed a letter of support for the front-line clinicians from eight western Massachusetts physicians.