Behavioral Health Workers in Oregon Want Change and Won’t Give Up

Before she began her career in behavioral health, Vialante Vieira had been in a drug and alcohol recovery program at Volunteers of America Oregon in Portland. Her experience at VOA gave her more than a path back to normalcy; it also helped her find her calling.

Now a drug-free housing manager at VOA, Vieira is 11 years clean and sober and has spent the last seven at VOA helping others overcome the same struggles she once faced. She is also a member of her union’s bargaining team in AFSCME Local 1790 (Council 75).

As she recently told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, her job is much more than just a job.

“This is more than work for me, it is giving back and helping others have the opportunities I had and continue to have,” she said. “The services I received as a VOA client and the services I now provide as a VOA employee have helped me find my voice.”

Vieira asked the commissioners to join her and her union sisters and brothers in “urging the Volunteers of America Oregon Board of Directors to respect the AFSCME-represented employees of VOA and to settle a fair contract now.”

In June, that contract became a reality. It isn’t everything that Vieira and her co-workers wanted, she says, but it’s a step forward.

Behavioral health workers across the nation are often underpaid, overworked and not given enough time for self-care and recovery. Like Vieira and her co-workers, many also feel that client care suffers as a result. That’s why many of them are choosing to form unions – to have a voice at the table for themselves and their clients.

“If it weren’t for our union, we wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Vieira says. “There are so many things that need to change at VOA. We need to offer our employees a plan for advancement, so they can strive to move up within the organization. We need more transparency, so decisions aren’t made behind closed doors. We need more pay equity and better case load management. We need policies around training and education for employees so we can improve patient care. And we need more vacation to bounce back from the transfer trauma that comes with dealing with the population that we serve.”

With a new contract, Vieira says, change is happening right now.

“It’s going to get better,” she says.