By LINDA BAKER
In September 2022 — weeks after workers at Central City Concern (CCC) voted to authorize a strike — Oregon AFSCME executive director Stacy Chamberlain requested a meeting with Andy Mendenhall, its newly-appointed president and CEO.
“We had an honest conversation about where he saw CCC going and how he saw his vision for addressing the crises we’re dealing with,” Chamberlain said. “I asked him how he’s going to get there with the work force about to go on strike.”
A year ago, relations between Central City Concern and AFSCME Local 88 were at a low point. Local 88 represented about 300 out of roughly 1,000 employees at Central City Concern — one of the metro area’s largest homeless services nonprofits. But management had fought and defeated a union campaign at its new Blackburn Center clinic that started with majority support. And bargaining over a new union contract for the union-represented CCC workers was combative.
Then Rachel Solotaroff — the CEO who told Blackburn workers a union was a bad idea — left last June. Mendenhall, her successor, seems to be charting a different course since he arrived last July.
His meeting with Chamberlain helped. Chamberlain talked about workers’ concerns. Wages were a top union priority, but management had proposed a pay increase that clocked in at half the rate of inflation. Mendenhall not only listened carefully, but he came to the bargaining table, which Chamberlain said is a rarity for a CEO.
“I wish they did (show up),” Chamberlain said. “It shows that respect.”
Mendenhall’s presence at the bargaining table may have helped avert a strike. In September, Central City Concern and Local 88 signed a contract that included raises of at least 17.5% over the course of its three-year term — and a “‘neutrality agreement” in which CCC agreed not to oppose future efforts to organize non union workers.
“I take a lot of pride in this neutrality agreement,” Mendenhall said, “and I’m proud to have the opportunity to lead CCC to reset our relationship with AFSCME.”
“Unions are key partners, and the opportunities for unions and employers to work together have never been more important,” Mendenhall said. “That’s my personal and our organizational philosophical platform.”
The CCC reset comes as nonprofits serving people with addiction and mental health issues grapple with severe labor shortages. Oregon’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission released a report last fall stating that Oregon is short 35,000 behavioral health workers. “Those are stunning numbers,” Mendenhall said.
CCC currently has about a 11% vacancy rate across all positions, from early career workers to staff holding advanced degrees and certifications. There are 38 vacancies in its behavioral health division alone.
Addressing the staffing shortage will take significant investment, Mendenhall said. Boosting worker compensation needs to be a top priority, along with workforce housing and affordable childcare. “We need to ensure long term stability with living and family wages for these roles that historically have struggled to keep up.”
Another priority is building a workforce training pipeline that starts in high school and coaxes people into the field with subsidies and tuition reimbursements at universities and community colleges, and paid internship and apprenticeship programs at behavioral health employers.
Before taking the reins as CEO, Mendenhall served as the Central City Concern’s chief medical officer. He already had personal relationships with union shop stewards. Now the conversation with Chamberlain helped him to steer labor relations in a new direction.
Mendenhall and Chamberlain point to other signs of warmer relations. In January, Central City Concern invited Chamberlain to join Mendenhall and Oregon’s newly elected BOLI Commissioner Christina Stephenson on an episode of the KGW-TV show Straight Talk about the mental health staff shortages.
“That was a new thing for AFSCME — to be invited by an employer to a news program,” Chamberlain said.
AFSCME was also invited to a discussion group Central City Concern convened with other behavioral health employers. And the contract included a new quarterly forum for dialogue between workers and management.
Central City Concern has also registered as a training site with United We Heal Training Trust, a joint labor-management apprenticeship program AFSCME started in 2021 with Cascadia Behavioral Health.
Not all Local 88 members at Central City Concern are convinced that a more collaborative atmosphere will result in meaningful improvements for employees.
“I wish I was more optimistic about it,” said Charlotte Garner, a substance abuse case manager who has worked for Central City Concern for about four years.
Management is saying fewer “actively negative things” about the union, Garner said. Garner represents Central City Concern workers on Local 88’s executive board, and served on the bargaining team that negotiated last year’s contract. She says there are still concerns about staff safety — these can be dangerous jobs — and about low pay relative to other nonprofits.
“When most of the leadership talks about owning housing, and most of the people who are employees can’t afford rent – that to me is a red flag,” Garner said. Garner earns $25 an hour working for CCC but said the same position at Fora Health, a substance abuse treatment nonprofit, pays $28 an hour.
Chamberlain said wages across the behavioral health industry “are not up to where they need to be.” Compensation is part of “a larger conversation” in which labor and management would combine forces to push for more funding.
“A lot of employers, especially nonprofits that have limited resources, feel the squeeze, and workers are feeling the squeeze the most,” Chamberlain said. “But instead of (management) pushing down, there is a real opportunity to push up and invite in.