Amid labor-contract negotiations, union employees of a mental-health facility known as La Casa Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in north Long Beach initiated a five-day strike on Wednesday, June 26, claiming “unfair labor practices” and stating the company has been “unwilling to bargain in good faith and protect the safety of patients, employees and the public.”
Representatives for the facility, however, say the union workers’ allegations are false and the dispute is merely an attempt to reach a better deal for wages and benefits.
Workers who last year joined Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), the largest hospital and healthcare-worker union in the western United States, are making claims of unsafe working conditions and lax on-site security that has led to numerous calls to the Long Beach Police Department.
The union claims there were more than 230 calls to police regarding the facility over the past three years, also referencing an incident last month in which a patient allegedly escaped from the facility and died the same day at a nearby hospital.
“The facility is out of control, and the company doesn’t seem to care whether patients are assaulting one another, injuring staff members or escaping into area neighborhoods,” said Neilanie Besana, a licensed vocational nurse, in a statement, claiming patients attacked her twice in one week. “Patient and community safety seem to be one of the company’s last priorities.”
Union leaders and workers vowed to continue picketing in front of the facility until 4pm next Monday. The employees wore purple union T-shirts, shouting “Protecting patients day or night, safety and care, that’s our right.”
Ninth District Long Beach City Councilmember Steven Neal and 4th District Long Beach City Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell rallied behind the union workers during the start of the strike. Sen. Ricardo Lara, who represents the 33rd District, has also sent his support through a letter presented by his field representative Cory Allen.
“I would like to avoid a strike, but after learning first-hand of the experience of the employees and the potential greater impact to the neighborhoods here in north Long Beach, I support them in their unfair-labor-practice strike against this company,” Neal said.
Sean Wherley, spokesperson for SEIU-UHW, said the union was expecting about 64 employees to join the strike. He added that La Casa, located in an industrial area at 6060 Paramount Blvd. with 190 beds, has received $45 million in Los Angeles County funds to care for patients, including those with a history of violence and who come from prison or mental hospitals. Wherley said the employees earn a starting wage of $9 an hour.
Dan Danzig, spokesperson for Alameda-based Telecare Corporation, which operates the facility, however, told the Signal Tribune that the allegations brought by the union are “inaccurate” and “irresponsible,” adding that the strike is more about reaching better labor contract as the union and La Casa had been in bargaining discussions for a year.
“The real issues are economic, over wages and benefits, and, unfortunately, the comments and allegations about safety are not accurate and intended to draw attention to their concerns about the bargaining process,” he said. “The safety of our staff and clients is our number-one priority, and La Casa has a great 24-year track record for providing services in the county that are safe and humane and really a value to the clients that we serve here.”
Danzig said the patients who are cared for at the facility have persistent, severe mental illness. “We take every precautioun possible to assure that they are safe, but this is not a prison,” he said. “This is an environment where we are helping people to recover and regain their dignity… We don’t treat them like inmates. It’s very common for individuals to wander off and leave, but we work very closely with Long Beach police and other agencies to minimize those risks and have a really excellent track record assuring a safe environment.”
Danzig added that La Casa has 220 employees (175 of which have joined the union) and a “significant number” of them have crossed the picket line in order to provide care for the mentally ill patients.
“Employees have a right to honor the union strike, and we respect that,” he said. “And we hope the union will respect the right of employees who choose to work their normal shifts over the next few days.”