By MALLORY GRUBEN
State workers in Oregon’s Stabilization and Crisis Unit (SACU) on July 12 asked Governor Tina Kotek to remove Director Sierra Rawson because she’s created an unsafe, unsupportive work environment, they say.
Two weeks later, their union reached a tentative agreement on a new contract after months of difficult bargaining.
SACU serves more than 95 people in 20 group homes along Interstate 5 from Portland to Eugene. The residents have intellectual and developmental disabilities, usually with mental health diagnoses that require close supervision and may contribute to sometimes violent outbursts.
AFSCME Local 1246 represents more than 600 SACU workers who provide one-on-one support throughout the day on up to 16-hour shifts. Workers help each individual take medications, follow a behavioral health plan, attend doctor’s appointments or school, and go on outings. Their jobs are high-stress, and workers have reported getting punched, scratched, and stabbed with pencils, among other injuries.
Local 1246 President Christina Sydenstricker Brown says SACU has faced a severe staffing crisis since the pandemic — the staff vacancy rate this year hit an all-time high of 14.7%, not counting workers who are out on leave or unable to work because of injuries. Documented injury hours grew 164% since Nov. 21, 2021, and the number of injury claims rose from 139 in 2019, when Rawson started as director, to 177 in 2022. Most workers report that they are logging between 100 and 200 hours of overtime a month because they are mandated to stay for extra shifts when staffing is short.
“It’s as bad as it’s ever been since I’ve been here,” said Bradley Capps, a direct support crisis specialist who has worked with SACU for more than seven years. “A lot of people are getting stuck (working for) extremely long hours, multiple times a week. … It makes your personal life tough. It makes plans and doctors appointments hard. If you show up to work one shift you can get stuck (with mandatory overtime). You never know which days you’ll be free.”
Local 1246 approached Rawson almost a year ago to outline members’ concerns and ask for help. Union representatives offered to work with Rawson to ask lawmakers for additional money for incentive pay, so workers who picked up mandated shifts could get a bonus for the extra work. Rawson was unwilling to collaborate.
“She literally said the staffing crisis is because of the staff who call out. She put it on the staff’s back,” Sydenstricker Brown said. “The reason people are calling out is because they get called in three to four times a week, and they don’t function correctly. … We’re tired and we’re burned out and we’re missing our family’s dinner at the table with them, and we’re missing our children’s events at school because we’re working so much just to help hold things together in these homes.”
Of more than 400 union members who participated in a vote of no confidence held between June 26 and July 2, 94.5% said they did not believe in Rawson’s ability to do her job. The Oregon Capitol Chronicle reported that tensions between the frontline workers and Oregon Department of Human Services managers have been simmering for months. Hundreds of emails and other documents reviewed by the Capitol Chronicle show the union repeatedly pushed the agency’s management for better pay and working conditions and sounded the alarm about worker injuries, staff exhaustion, and low morale.
Sydenstricker Brown declined to share specific details of the tentative agreement until members finish a ratification vote on Aug. 11, but she said she suspects the letter to the governor’s office helped reach an agreement. Until recently, negotiations were a “real struggle,” she said.
Sydenstricker Brown was set to meet with Rawson and a representative from the governor’s office to discuss the letter on Aug. 2, after this issue went to press.Sydenstricker Brown said she expects there will be some kind of change, whether that’s a new SACU director or a plan to improve Rawson’s performance as a leader.