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Service providers deliver critical crisis intervention to vulnerable groups, but workers say they were mistreated.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Hawthorn Walk-in Center is at 5240 N.E. Elam Young Parkway in Hillsboro.A labor union has been formed at a key crisis intervention and mental health service provider in Washington County.

A strong majority of workers at the Hillsboro-based Hawthorn Walk-in Center voted in favor of forming the union, with 33 "yes" votes and nine "no" votes, said Eddie Charlton an organizer with Oregon AFSCME Council 75.

The results were made final after the National Labor Relations Board certified the votes Wednesday, June 9.

The Hawthorn Walk-In Center provides urgent mental health and addiction care and is operated by LifeWorks NW, a Portland-based nonprofit with clinics across the region.

It also serves as the hub for Washington County's mental health crisis services program, receiving more than $5.1 million from the county last year.

Service providers at Hawthorn treat primarily vulnerable groups, including low-income, uninsured and homeless people, who can't access critical services elsewhere.

In April, workers said they were repeatedly left out of decision-making processes regarding policies that affected their ability to deliver quality services. They added that they hadn't received adequate raises and compensation for years, causing high employee turnover, which led to increased workloads.

The workers included professional staff such as mental health therapists, substance use counselors and peer support specialists, as well as nonprofessional staff such as front desk employees.

Their concerns came to a head during the pandemic, multiple workers said, as upper management made abrupt policy decisions, which raised fears about contracting COVID-19.

"It feels just so hopeful," said Jeanne-Marie Ritter of the vote results.

Ritter is a crisis therapist who works with the county crisis services program, providing onsite and mobile care to people in crisis at schools, jails, emergency departments and people's homes.

She said she wanted to be a crisis therapist after having experiences in her life when she "wished someone had been able to show up for me." Additionally, watching people endure trauma living in New York City following the 9/11 attacks motivated her.

"People often come into this work with a generosity of spirit and wanting to give and help others," Ritter said. In a nonprofit setting, where service providers are asked to respond to increasing needs with little resources, "that generosity of spirit is kind of used up or exploited."

She said after watching colleagues become fed up and leave due to unilateral and unannounced decisions by upper management, she knew the status quo wasn't sustainable.

The prospect of being able to negotiate for better compensation is welcomed, Ritter said, but she added that she's most looking forward to her and her colleagues having a seat at the table and being able to use their firsthand knowledge to create policies that allow for better services.

"When you get that moment, it's like, 'OK, we have this to look forward to,'" Ritter said about hearing the vote results. "I think it's the way for things to get better."

Mary Monnat, chief executive officer of LifeWorks NW, declined an interview through a spokesperson, providing a statement via email instead.

We appreciate the Hawthorn staff who shared their opinions with us, and we respect their decision," Monnat said in part. "We will continue to work to make LifeWorks NW a great employer, effective service provider and valued community partner. We will bargain in good faith with Oregon AFSCME Council 75 to reach an agreement on the terms of a collective bargaining agreement with Hawthorn Walk-in Center."


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