Mental health workers strike for safety in Long BeachBy Hiyasmin Quijano
INQUIRER.net US Bureau
LONG BEACH, California—Nearly 200 workers of La Casa Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in North Long Beach, including several Filipinos, went on strike, demanding workplace safety and better pay.
Striking employees want management to implement several safety measures, including hiring an onsite security guard and a Plexiglas barrier around the nursing station. They are members of the Service Employers’ International Union–United Healthcare Workers West.
Workers allege that patient assaults on them have led to more than 200 calls to the police from the facility in a three-year period. According to the union, these consisted of 70 assault, 45 follow-ups, 24 suicidal, 44 medical, 3 rape, 4 illegal drugs and 31 escape calls to the Long Beach Police Department.
“We want improvements in the safety of the patient and also the staff,” states Neilanie Bensana, a Filipina licensed vocational nurse who says she has been assaulted by a female client a few times.
“Many admitted to the facility are not ready for the recovery phase of their mental illness,” Bensana adds, “which leads to client-to-client assault, patient-to-patient assault, visitor assault, escaping from the facility and running around the community.”
She says management should reinforce the gates, put a clear barrier around the nursing station “so that patients don’t throw objects at us” and give training “to improve our response to codes—but nothing has been done by the management.”
Luz Flores, a certified nursing assistant, carries around her incident report showing occupational injuries from La Casa. She suffered from a left shoulder strain, contusion of coccyx, chest wall strain, lumbar strain, cervical strain and head contusion but says she “received nothing but hospital bills in return.”
“A male patient pushed me to the floor and I was knocked unconscious,” Flores reports. “They told me take all the rest I want but we’re not paying you anything. No workers comp—they just ignore me and I still have this hospital bill.”
“The other facility owned by Telecare doesn’t have this problem—La Casa doesn’t even have a security guard and the staff are left alone,” states SEIU communications representative Sean Wherley. “It all boils down to, ‘Why can’t you do that for La Casa?’”
Daniel Danzig, a spokesman for the center, told the Long Beach Press Telegram that the workers’ safety demands were unnecessary and “inappropriate” because the facility had been carefully designed for safety. He said the talks with SEIU have been mainly on “economic issues.”
La Casa is owned by Telecare, an Alameda, California-based private company with a reported net revenue of $187 million in 2011. Los Angeles County pays its Long Beach facility $450 a day per patient, which totaled to more than $54 million since 2010.
La Casa employees, whose starting wage is less than $9, joined the SEIU just a year ago. Wherley said the work stoppage is expected to last until Monday, July 1.
Support from public officials
La Casa workers received support from Long Beach Fourth District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell, Assembly member Anthony Rendon of the 63rd District and Senator Ricardo Lara to name a few.
“I am eager to see that safety concerns are addressed,” says Lara, an advocate for mental health services. “I urge a speedy resolution to these issues so that patients continue receiving excellent care, that employees feel safe on the job, and nearby residents may take comfort knowing that La Casa is a community asset.”