PEF calling on state to unfreeze hiring, stop redeploying staff at CDPC
By KATE MOSTACCIO
COVID-19 continues to tax every aspect of New York’s infrastructure – from finances to the economy to public health. PEF members have risen and continue to rise to the challenges, but many are struggling under staffing shortages brought on by hiring freezes.
At Capital District Psychiatric Center, a state Office of Mental Health facility, PEF members have been working feverously to maintain the highest level of direct care possible while dealing with numerous staffing vacancies throughout the agency that remain unfilled.
“New York State has restricted spending in this agency by instituting a ‘hard freeze’ on hiring that has caused a critical shortage of qualified mental health care professionals to deliver direct-care services to our patients,” PEF and Civil Service Employees Association members at the facility wrote in a joint letter to the state. “This, in turn, has resulted in higher overtime costs and the forced redeployment of staff to cover positions that have been vacant for months.”
PEF Division 231 Council Leader Mary Haltermann said the hiring freeze, coupled with the facility’s loss of hiring waivers, has left CDPC with few options to fill much-needed positions and COVID has given the state an avenue to redeploy current staff, instead of hire.
“In the past when we had hiring freezes, we have had waivers to hire direct care staff like nurses and therapy aides,” Haltermann said. “You need a minimum number of staff to take care of patients. They took our waivers away and the hiring process you need to go through is very lengthy.”
Short staffing has been an issue for years and retaining direct-care staff is a real problem.
“We radically underpay our nurses compared to other hospitals like Albany Med and St. Peter’s,” she said. “Albany Med is right across the parking lot from CDPC. We have a lot of competition for our nurses.”
COVID has made it even worse. When New York declared a state of emergency, the state began redeploying staff using COVID as the reason for the moves.
“When they redeployed the staff, it was tough on the redeployed staff because that was not the job they wanted to do and they were hired to do,” Haltermann said. “They would put them in therapy aide positions on inpatient units to ease some of the staffing shortages. But we haven’t had a COVID case in a while.”
There is some concern among staff that the pandemic is being used as an excuse to use redeployments to fill gaps in staffing that should have been filled by hiring new staff. Redeployment has taken a huge toll on morale at CDPC.
When rehab programs shuttered to limit activity in the building, PEF Member Quentin Welch, a rehabilitation specialist at CDPC, was redeployed into a mental health therapy aide (MHTA) position. For Welch, who worked as a MHTA for a decade, the redeployment was a blow.
“Throughout that time, I endured a lot. Emotionally, physically, psychologically,” he said. “When I was told I had to work the units again, I was not happy, to say the least. Morale was awful and all of us were confused, angry and bitter. We felt separated from our departments with no answers or explanations as to why this was happening to us. I worked hard for 10 years and finally got a break when I earned my position – only to be thrown back in head-first and deserted.
“CDPC has always had an issue with staffing,” he said. “Most of us feel this had nothing to do with COVID, itself, as we only had a handful of cases in the building. They were blatantly using COVID as an excuse to implement us into the staffing pool because they were so short staffed. Most of us feel that’s the real reason we were redeployed and that if they had better staffing, something else probably would have been done.”
The stresses of being mandated and redeployed are clear at CDPC, Haltermann said.
“Staff members are frustrated and they don’t have time at home with their families,” she said. “It affects their health and mental health. They can’t get time off. It increases the chances of making errors. We have the Justice Center that oversees us and members could get called in for an interrogation, which could impact their license.
“They don’t have a balance between work and personal life,” she said. “They don’t know if they are going to get mandated to work on inpatient units or if they are going to have to work 16 hours. It’s brutal. I don’t know how they manage to do it.”
Haltermann said what CDPC needs to ease the burden is straightforward: put the waivers back in place or lift the hiring freeze for direct-care staff.
PEF President Wayne Spence stands with OMH members in calling on the governor to unfreeze hiring at OMH and get them the resources needed to properly serve the people of New York at a time when mental health issues are on the rise.
“The state’s financial woes should not be resolved on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens of New York state,” he said. “We ask that staffing deficits and the understaffing at CDPC be remedied immediately. You must act now to assure the hiring of much needed front-line staff so that PEF and CSEA members can continue to provide quality mental health services.”
Sign the petition asking state to unfreeze hiring and end redeployments here.
Send a pre-written letter to the state here.