Mental Health Center Employees Demand Safe Conditions

AFSCME Local 2767 members at the McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield were being repeatedly subjected to violent attacks by high-risk patients.

Staff continually alerted management to the alarming pattern of attacks but their pleas for safety improvements for workers and patients alike fell on deaf ears.

McFarland is a state-run psychiatric hospital treating approximately 150 patients at a time, including individuals held as an alternative to incarceration after having committed a crime but found not guilty by reason of insanity or mentally unfit to stand trial. 

Under the AFSCME-backed workplace violence reporting law that took effect in January, the Department of Human Services reported 17 serious attacks on staff in the first quarter of 2019 alone.

“Employees urged management to increase hiring, improve training, provide needed equipment and make other changes to improve safety,” AFSCME Council 31 Staff Representative Jessica Derhake said. “But instead of addressing staff concerns, management told employees that assaults should be expected as ‘part of the job.’”

After a female employee was choked until she lost consciousness in late June, then forced to work in close proximity to her attacker, AFSCME members decided to hold a news conference to alert the public to the dangerous working conditions and lack of management response.

In response, top Department of Human Services officials agreed to meet promptly with local union leaders to hear and address concerns.

At the meeting, DHS committed to making a number of changes demanded by the local union, including: better staffing; new equipment like an adequate number of radios; an electronic system for direct reporting of incidents and assaults; more and better training on appropriate techniques for the complex needs and aggressive behaviors of McFarland patients; and other safety steps like adding a security gate and eliminating potential hazards.

“While the meeting was a big step in the right direction,” Derhake said, “AFSCME will continue to hold management accountable to their pledges to ensure the safety of every employee and patient.”