Mental health workers seek to unionize at Hawthorn Walk-In Center
Workers at a key crisis intervention and mental health service provider in Washington County are seeking to form a union, saying they can't continue their vital services under current working conditions.
A majority of workers at the Hillsboro-based Hawthorn Walk-In Center submitted union authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board last month, said Eddie Charlton, an organizer with Oregon AFSCME Council 75.
The Hawthorn Walk-In Center provides urgent mental health and addiction care and is operated by LifeWorks NW, a Portland-based nonprofit service provider.
It also serves as the hub for Washington County's mental health crises services program, receiving more than $5.1 million from the county last year.
Working to form a union are professional staff such as mental health therapists, substance use counselors and peer support specialists, as well as non-professional staff such as front desk employees.
The workers say they have been repeatedly left out of policymaking decisions affecting them and haven't received adequate raises or compensation for years.
Concerns about not being involved in decision-making and a lack of clarity about certain policies came to a head during the coronavirus pandemic, workers said, adding that upper management could have done more to protect them from contracting COVID-19.
"We are not asking for the world or a doubling of our salaries, we know the realities of working within a nonprofit organization," said Corey Pursel, a mental health therapist at Hawthorn who works with Washington County's crisis team. "We want to have a seat at the table."
Pursel said he has had to repeatedly clarify with supervisors changes in pandemic protocols from upper management, including an abrupt directive to restart in-person therapy, after questioning whether the decisions were safe.
He said he has watched LifeWorks NW create a high level of turnover among his colleagues who burnout working to fill gaps in an underresourced mental health services system.
The turnover hurts client who often would rather stop therapy than restart with someone new, Pursel said.
Skye Sodja is a service coordinator at Hawthorn who works as a case manager for clients, connecting them to resources.
"We all do this work because we love it," Sodja said. "Doing this work at this level takes something out of people, regardless of conditions. But there are things you can do to make it more sustainable."
Sodja said his concerns are not with direct supervisors, with whom he feels he has healthy working relationships, but rather the upper management of LifeWorks NW.
Juliane De Grazia, a crisis clinician at Hawthorn, said the issues at Hawthorn are representative of a systemic problem regarding the lack of adequate mental health resources.
De Grazia works with a mental health response team in partnership with the Washington County Sheriff's Office. She travels with deputies, responding to mental health crises as a tool for deescalation.
As law enforcement agencies across the country face elevated scrutiny about how to respond to mental health emergencies without force, the program De Grazia works in has been held up by Washington County officials as crucial to equitable policing.
"It's so disappointing to me that these services are outsourced to a nonprofit because it's cheaper," De Grazia said. "It just shows in society's mind what's really important. You want mental health services, then you also need to be willing to put the money towards a program that's sustainable."
Stacy Chamberlain, director of Oregon AFSCME, said in a statement she's aware of interest in organizing a union throughout the greater LifeWorks NW system.
"We've also been alerted that Lifeworks has reached out to anti-union law firms in an attempt to neutralize this effort," Chamberlain said. "Lifeworks should not be using their limited resources on anti-union activities to fight their own employees."
Mary Monnat, president and chief executive officer of LifeWorksNW, declined a request for an interview through a spokesperson.
LifeWorks NW didn't respond to an emailed list of questions about the union effort and working conditions at Hawthorn, instead providing a statement.
"LifeWorks NW fully respects the right of our employees to choose to be represented or not to be represented by a union," read the statement in part. "LifeWorks NW has worked with the NLRB to establish the details of a secret-ballot election where all eligible employees can make their choice, free from coercion or intimidation by any party. LifeWorks NW appreciates the patience and thoughtfulness of our employees during this election process and encourages all eligible employees to vote."
Workers at Hawthorn will hold a mail-in vote on the union from April 29 through May 27.
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