State mental health workers demand more staff and better pay

The Triangle Tribune
State mental health workers rally outside of work in Butner.Photo byCourtesy

By Mia Khatib

BUTNER — State mental health workers rallied last week at Murdoch Developmental Center, a Department of Health and Human Services facility, to demand support for their “safe staffing” recommendations and an hourly pay increase to $20.

The recommendations include three immediate changes: a permanent 10% retention bonus for all frontline positions, a return to pre-pandemic minimum staffing ratios, and shift differential pay for all staff, including food service and housekeeping employees.

Sekia Royall, a food service assistant at O’Berry Neuromedical Treatment Center, said that state-operated mental health facilities are in a dire understaffing crisis and some facilities are closing entire units. She said they are caring for hundreds less patients than their capacity.

“Contract staff are being paid three times more than state employees. Many feel the state is punishing our loyalty. We need urgent pay increases of up to $20 per hour and safe staffing now!" said Royall, who is also president of the state’s public service workers union, UE150.

UE150’s safe staffing demands also include medium-term solutions: regular meetings between union leadership and facility directors, establishing a Safe Staffing Task Force to investigate causes of employee turnover and expedite hiring, and designing a step pay plan that will allow all employees to reach the top of their position’s pay grade in seven years.

Employee vacancies at state-owned mental health facilities have slightly more than tripled since 2020, when 1,230 vacancies were reported. Last month, Luke McDonald, a fiscal analyst at the state legislature, told lawmakers that nearly 3,700 positions are vacant. McDonald said this amounts to more than 2,400 fewer people served, or a 31% decrease across all DHHS state facilities.

For example, North Carolina Health News reported that while the state’s three Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Centers would have enough space for 146 patients daily if fully staffed, they were only able to serve an average of 80 patients daily in 2022.

Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposed state budget for the 2023-25 biennium earlier this month, which includes dedicating $1 billion to address the state’s mental health and substance use crisis. But multiple Republican lawmakers have spoken in opposition of the proposal.

“Governor Cooper, please help the staff at Murdoch Developmental Center and across DHHS. We work hard, are very understaffed and we should be treated fairly,” said Phyllis Jones, a developmental technician at Murdoch and a UE150 member. “We should get raises just like the prison guards did with your 7-Year Step Plan.”

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