Update (April 13, 2012): The layoffs of state employees working with mental health patients in Springfield dispersed from the Vermont State Hospital by Tropical Storm Irene that were to take effect on April 14 are now postponed until at least May, according to several staffers. Some workers have already quit, however.
You can understand why Jesse Covey feels like he’s in a remake of “Last Man Standing.”
In a few days, the night shift leader for a crew of Vermont State Hospital employees working at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield is going to lose all of his workmates.
These are the seven folks he works 12-hour shifts with, night after night, rotating three-shift and four-shift weeks. The ones he spends holidays and weekends in prison with, hangs with in the Holiday Inn Express motel, where they are housed when off duty on their shifts.
They’re ones he shared stories with about the day Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, forcing the evacuation of 51 patients to hospitals around the state and to the Springfield prison. And who share anxiety and stress about the two-hour commute from the Waterbury area and the impact on their family and social lives.
His co-workers, he said, “are like part of a big family.”
“We’ve been through quite a bit,” says Covey, who has worked for eight years at the state hospital.
Now, they’re being laid off under the state’s collective bargaining agreement, bumped out of their jobs to allow those with more seniority to take their jobs due to a layoff of some 80 VSH employees. It feels like one more emotional and financial blow in a long eight-month slog that he says workers feel is “like a yearlong funeral. Just waiting for the last blow to be struck and then it’s all over.”
Tropical Storm Irene’s physical, emotional, financial and legislative impact has garnered tons of ink and digital bytes in the past eight months: rebuilding the Waterbury state office complex and the mental health system, Vermont’s devastated roads, bridges and villages, grappling with complicated funding for repairs and finding workspaces for some 1,200 displaced state workers.
But even as time passes and recovery proceeds, the fallout from Irene still continues, if in less obvious ways. This has been especially true for state hospital staffers, such as Covey’s workmates. They are a band of longtime “temps” (temporary employees) who agreed to the long hours, commutes and isolation of working in a unit at the prison where Vermont now holds patients committed to the state hospital who are under judicial order – jobs they feel no one else wanted.
“They are firing off my entire crew. And these are the guys that came down here immediately after the flood,” he said.
“These are the people who’ve been coming down here week after week, leaving their lives at home,” he said. Which Covey calls, “completely wrong.”
Kate Duffy, commissioner of human resources for the state, said the state’s hands are tied.
“We have obligations we have to meet under the collective bargaining agreement,” she said. “How it works basically, is people with the most seniority get the job.”
The state’s contract with the Vermont State Employees Association is designed to retain and reward those with the most experience and time working for the state, she said, “and we want to respect that.”
Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood said in all nine temporary workers are being laid off in the prison shifts. He said he was aware it’s a difficult situation and the state is “trying to mitigate the circumstances of that for the staff.” So far he said about half of the Springfield crew have signed on for other state jobs.
The night crew at Springfield is being bumped because with the state hospital closed and patients dispersed to private facilities such as the Rutland Regional Medical Center Brattleboro Retreat and Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, there are no longer enough jobs for the 240 full- and part-time employees who worked at the state hospital.
In late February, news broke that the state was laying off 80 VSH employees, though Duffy estimated the number now is slightly less than that. Under the seniority system in the contract, that inevitably means temporary workers are among the first who will get squeezed out.
Michael Collins of Waterbury, a strong, youthful “psych tech” in his 20s, is one of those. He has worked as a VSH employee for three and a half years, always as a temp. He helped transport patients the day after the flood and worked day to day not knowing where he would be, pitching in as if he was a full-time staffer. “It was just helter-skelter,” he said.
He has had an inkling he was eventually going to lose his full-time temp job, which he grew to enjoy.
“It’s kind of a relief, I guess. They’ve kind of been beating around the bush,” he said of the news. He said his last day will be April 14 and he’s not sure what he’s going to do now.
For 39-year-old Henry Guile of Northfield, losing his job is more of a bitter pill to swallow: It’s his second time being laid off by the state. He worked at the former Dale correctional facility for women in Waterbury and was laid off there in January 2009, despite assurances he would still have a job, he said. Now, after having to work mandatory overtime at VSH and taking on the difficult Springfield job, he’s facing the ax again.
“I’ve been assaulted, forced to work 16-hour shifts, and spent the last five months away from home living out of a suitcase. This is the thanks I get. This is how I find out the value of my time and energy,” he said.
“This is my last shot with the state. I don’t want to get laid off again by these people,” he said.
The temporary state workers in his shift, who don’t get benefits such as health insurance, sick days and retirement benefits, are being offered the chance to fill in on a “per diem” basis when workers call in sick or take a day off, according to Covey. But he has trouble imagining how that will work considering the long commute and the financial realities for the workers, who need to count on steady income.
Rick Steventon, assistant director of the unemployment insurance division, said the VSH temps are eligible to collect unemployment from the layoff, though if they earn more than 30 percent of their weekly benefit in a given week, they will have to report it and the benefit for that week will be smaller.
Covey said he is concerned the state is losing qualified people who can deal with what he says frankly is a sometimes “hairy” situation working inside a prison, which is very different from the state hospital.
“We’ve got to walk through all the inmates every day,” he explains, to get to the cellblock they use, which has five patients. “You get kind of used to it after a while.”
The Legislature this session, in passing a dramatic overhaul of the mental health system spurred by the closure of the state hospital and Gov. Peter Shumlin, took exceptional pains to write in guarantees that any laid-off VSH employees would have first shot at jobs in a new 25-bed state hospital planned near Central Vermont Medical Center.
It also put in language to make sure they would be considered for jobs at Rutland hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat, which will provide six and 14 acute care beds under a four-year contract in the mental health bill. Jobs may also open up at an eight-bed acute care unit the state is scrambling to renovate and open in Morrisville to handle some patients until the new state hospital is built. That is still considered months away, however.
VSEA spokesman Doug Gibson said he empathized with the Springfield workers. “VSEA has vigorously opposed any and all efforts to reduce the size of the current state hospital workforce, and we share the employees’ belief that the layoffs were — and continue to be — unnecessary and unwarranted,” he said. Calling the situation created by Irene “highly unique,” he said VSEA is doing the best job it can to protect members, noting it worked hard to ensure the mental health overhaul gives VSH employees first crack at any new state jobs created in mental health.
That is little consolation for Covey, who said losing his “family” at Springfield compounds the stress he’s been feeling at home. Married with two children, the days he spends away at work have been hard on his relationship, he said. But he doesn’t want to quit because he loves his job.
“I’m very dedicated to the state hospital and it has been a huge and influential part of my life,” he said.