The state plans to eliminate the positions of 80 Vermont State Hospital workers in mid-April. The reduction in force is the largest layoff since the beginning of the Great Recession when the Douglas administration and the Vermont Legislature reduced state government by 660 workers, or roughly 10 percent.
The Shumlin administration says the large number of layoffs now under way is necessary six months after the closure of the state hospital in Waterbury when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept through the facility on Aug. 28.
Since then, Vermont State Hospital workers have been scattered across the state in private facilities, including the Brattleboro Retreat and Rutland Regional Medical Center.
Next week, about 120 workers will receive reduction-in-force notices; in all about 240 employees, including a number of temporary workers were part of the Vermont State Hospital staff.
Kate Duffy, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Human Resources, said the decision was a long time coming. “Unfortunately this was not unexpected,” she said. “We gave the union a heads-up about a month ago.” She anticipates that after the RIF, the Department of Mental Health will be reduced to about 90 workers altogether, out of 179 full-time employees.
“We’re going to do what we can to help people,” Duffy said. “It’s unfortunate. Irene has done some things no one would have wanted.”
Duffy said the announcement today was prompted by private facilities telling the state they would end the six-month collaboration with state employees.
“We can’t do this forever, is essentially what they’re telling us,” Duffy said.
As private facilities begin to hire their own employees to fill positions, some state workers would be getting paid not to work absent the reduction in force.
“It’s hard to spend taxpayer dollars to pay someone who’s not working,” Duffy said.
Meanwhile the future of a state-run facility for psychiatric patients is uncertain as Vermont House and Senate split over the size of a future hospital. House Bill 630 lays the groundwork for a 25-bed facility; the Senate is looking at a hospital that would serve a maximum of 16 patients with acute psychiatric needs. The Shumlin administration is pushing for the smaller sized facility along with a decentralized mental health system that depends more on community-based care. Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, has cited cost concerns as a factor.
The timeframe for a new facility is up in the air. According to estimates from the Department of Buildings and General Services, it could take three years or more to build a new facility.
A pending bill in the Vermont Senate for a 16-bed facility at the Central Vermont Medical Center gives some clarity to the private entities, Duffy said. As the department begins to phase out state employees, the state needed to give 35 days notice to those who will eventually lose their jobs.
Duffy said she worked with the union to encourage members of the Vermont State Employees Association to sign up for voluntary RIF employment rights a month ago, which entitled workers to get on a list for openings in the Agency of Human Services. About 40 did so, and 11 have been placed in new positions with the agency.
Many workers were reluctant, she said, to sign on to the employment program because they were waiting to see what would happen with a temporary facility in Morrisville that has met with local opposition.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, employees have “bumping” rights that entitle workers who have seniority to take jobs from employees that are in a lower pay grade. Duffy said there are several hundred job openings in the agency, and she hopes to place as many state hospital workers as possible in positions there before the April 13 layoff deadline.
The fate of an interim facility in Morrisville is up in the air, and Spaulding said it would be four to six months before patients could be moved there.
“This decision has nothing to do with size of the new facility,” Spaulding said. “It has to do with the fact that in the interim we don’t have positions for these people.”
Duffy said H.630 includes a provision that would give current Vermont State Hospital workers the first right of refusal for positions at a new facility.
Members of the Working Vermonters Caucus held a meeting over the noon hour Friday to discuss the layoffs and what the Legislature could do to address the issue.
Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said it is unsettling that the state cannot wait to lay people off.
“In a matter of weeks we’re going to have a much clearer understanding of what’s going on in Morrisville,” he said. “Why not extend a courtesy to folks who have been on the front lines? Can’t we pay them for two weeks doing nothing. It seems like common courtesy, given what everyone’s been through.”
Rep. John Moran, a Democrat and co-chair of the caucus, said the announcement Friday caught many by surprise.
“We’re trying to sort out what this means for the patients in the different facilities like the Brattleboro Retreat and other places,” he said. “We’re also trying to find out how this will affect the welfare of patients and employees. It seems like people got caught flat-footed.”
Moran said there are some concerns that patients receive appropriate care without the specially-trained state employees.
Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the Vermont State Employees Association, said the state employees who have been shifted to other facilities deserve better.
“We’re putting people on unemployment lines who have been living in hotels, working 12-hour shifts sometimes away from their families sometimes in unfamiliar places,” Casey said.
Casey said the state workers have been essential to private hospitals that are not accustomed to treating patients with such intensive needs.
The association’s president John Reese said in a statement that Spaulding had promised caregivers at a recent meeting that the state would try to include them in contracts with private hospitals. No state workers are being retained at Brattleboro Retreat or Rutland Regional, he said, and in his view that’s an indication the state “didn’t negotiate hard enough” with the providers.
“The State’s decision to RIF these 80 state hospital caregivers does absolutely nothing to help alleviate Vermont’s very serious mental health crisis,” Reese said. “In fact, we think it will only worsen the crisis because it takes many dedicated and knowledgeable caregivers out of the system and away from a patient population that depends on continuity of care—and caregivers.”
VSEA Director Mark Mitchell said though Douglas “had an affinity for laying off state employees, but we never witnessed him laying off 80 employees at one time.”
“It’s shameful that after nearly a decade of providing top-level care to the most severely mentally ill Vermonters — in widely acknowledged less-than-ideal conditions — and after heroically rising up during and after Irene to evacuate this same population safely as water rose around them, the State is now rewarding these caregivers with a RIF notice,” Mitchell said in a statement.
Reese chastised the Shumlin administration for removing 80 experienced workers at the expense of patient care. He said the state is privatizing the mental health system.
“This means we now run the risk of the private hospitals just deciding to start charging Vermont more money to care for our most severely mentally ill citizens,” Reese said.
Editor’s note: Additional information was posted to this story at 6:39 a.m. Anne Galloway contributed to this report.