By IMRAN GHORI
Employees at Patton State Hospital joined their colleagues around the state Wednesday in demanding higher pay at state mental hospitals.
Similar protests were planned at Metropolitan State Hospital and Atascadero State Hospital in advance of a meeting later Wednesday between union and state officials.
Court-ordered increases in recent months have led to large pay raises hikes for psychiatrists, psychologists and other staff members at state prisons. Employees at the state's five mental health hospitals fear that their pay is lagging behind and they will lose staff to the prison system.
"Right now there's an exodus of medical staff," said Mario Valenzuela, a union labor representative with Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, which represents about 900 nurses, food service workers, custodians, teachers and office personnel at Patton.
In an effort to recruit more qualified physicians, a federal receiver recently ordered the near doubling of salaries for prison doctors.
The move had the unintended consequence of luring physicians away from mental health institutions such as Patton and Atascadero State Hospital.
Facing lawsuits related to mental health care, both the Department of Corrections and the state hospital system separately risk having their systems taken over by a court-appointed federal receiver unless they make mandated improvements. Both systems are competing for the same doctors under the threat of receivership.
Holding signs saying "Equal pay for equal work," the group of mostly nurses at the protest said the loss of staff affects patient care and their safety. They said their work, dealing with criminally insane patients, is just as dangerous as those who work in prisons, if not more so.
"They have correctional guards behind them," said Sharon Simmons, a nurse at Patton.
"We don't have anyone. It's just us and the patients."
The disparity ranges from $2,551 per month for a pharmacy technician to up to $8,766 for a registered nurse, according to the union.
SEIU Local 1000 is pressuring the Department of Personnel Administration to include raises for its members in the state budget.
Cindy Barrett, a spokeswoman for Patton, said the hospital hasn't been affected by the loss of staff as much as other hospitals because the area has a large pool of employees to draw upon. But she said it is a concern.
"We agree the situation has to be looked at," Barrett said.
She noted that decisions on pay are made in Sacramento, not at the local level. Staff writer Paige Austin contributed to this report.
Reach Imran Ghori at 909-806-3061 or ighori@PE.com
Thursday, March 29, 2007
By IMRAN GHORI
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