By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
LARNED — Approximately 50 people took part in a rally Saturday, protesting working conditions at Larned State Hospital sponsored by the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
“I was pretty happy with the turnout,” said Mike Marvin, executive director at the Kansas Organization of State Employees. “I’d have liked to have had more, but a lot of people had to work and some were scared they might lose their jobs if they showed up.”
Larned State Hospital is one of two state-run inpatient facilities for mentally ill adults. The other state hospital is in Osawatomie.
Hospital employees, Marvin said, were upset over being required to work overtime shifts two or three times a week.
“We are expected to work 16 hours and turn around and work 12 to 16 (hours) again,” said Tristan Shaver, a direct care worker who’s worked at the hospital for six years. “We work six days in a row with two (days) off. Working 12-to-16 hours for six days in a row is draining, while also taking care of your family.”
Shaver said the hospital was often short staffed.
“The weekends are the worst,” she said. “In my unit alone, we drop core (below minimal staffing requirements) five out of the six nights I’m there. On the weekends, we have three to five units working ‘under core.’ ”
The rally was held outside the Pawnee County Courthouse.
“We are drained from working all this overtime,” Shaver said, noting that she routinely must work between 20 and 25 hours of overtime a week.
Melissa Strain, an escort aide at the hospital for the past seven years, said her four children have begged her to quit because she has had to work so many hours.
“My babysitter is raising my children,” said Strain, a single parent.
Strain and Shaver spoke at the rally. KOSE provided KHI News Service with written copies of their remarks.
The Great Bend Tribune on Sunday reported that 18 percent of the hospital’s direct care workers — called mental health/developmental disability technicians — had been there less than a year; 56 percent had been there less than three years.
Admissions to Larned State Hospital are limited to adults considered to be a potential danger to themselves or others. Most of the admissions are court-ordered.
Last year, national surveyors cited the hospital for not having enough nurses and for not doing enough to ensure that medications were safely dispensed. The findings put the hospital’s accreditation — and potentially $14.5 million in federal aid — in jeopardy.
The hospital passed a follow-up inspection.
Angela de Rocha, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said the agency realized “this is a very difficult and trying situation for staff and (we) appreciate greatly their dedication to their jobs.”
Still, de Rocha said she was “very disappointed” to learn that none of the rally’s speakers “bothered to acknowledge our efforts to make the employee situation better and the progress that has been made.”
She said KDADS Secretary Shawn Sullivan intends to have a task force look for ways to start regional crisis-intervention programs, which, if successful, would lead to fewer patients being sent to Larned, which would lessen strain on the hospital’s staff.
Last year, de Rocha said, KDADS led a successful effort to raise nurses’ salaries at the hospital. The hospital, she said, has been “very careful to follow both the substance and spirit of all state personnel laws and regulations.”
But Scott Towery, a direct care worker at the hospital for the past 21 years, didn’t have any thing good to say about the situation.
“If you work a bunch of overtime, you can call in and ask for time off but they’ve been denying almost everybody,” Towery said. “They pretty much have to because they don’t have the staff to do the coverage.”
Towery, who was elected president of KOSE, said he earns $12.66 an hour.
“I haven’t had a raise — a real one — since 2005,” he said. “We got a little step up in 2011, but that was it.”
Towery said he’s paid the same as a first-year MH/DD technician.
“Once you go through the training, you’ll make as much as I do,” he said.
Towery and Marvin said they plan to discuss the workers’ concerns with hospital officials next month.
“We’ll see what happens,” Marvin said. “They keep saying they’re trying to hire more people. That may be, but what we’re saying is they’re doing next to nothing to retain the people they have now.”