Hard Labor Keeps Hospitals Functioning

By S.B.A.

Western Psychiatric Hospital (image from )

I am a Student Behavioral Associate at Western Psychiatric Hospital, UPMC’s in-patient mental health facility. I work on many floors of the hospital, so I’ve seen a lot of what happens there. On a typical day, I might work with autistic patients and people with developmental disabilities; I feed people, clean up after them and help them bathe, and restrain people when they are a risk to themselves or others. I’ve been there just over a year.

I’m a student at Pitt where I study Psychology. I work this job (in addition to a second job) to support myself and pay for my education while also getting experience in the field I want to work in. I’m from Central PA. It’s a rural area and healthcare desert, and especially a mental health desert, which is how I got interested in doing this work. When I first got the job at Western Psych, I was excited for the opportunity. That didn’t last long.

I knew this job was going to be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be as dangerous as it is at Western Psych. We work understaffed a lot of the time, meaning there aren’t other people around to help you if you’re in trouble. I’m always hyper-vigilant, I never really “come down” anymore. Sometimes I’m at home and the microwave beeps and it sounds like a body button alarm and I snap into emergency mode.

Western Psych is severely understaffed. Sometimes you’re by yourself, but at least the layout on my floor gives a direct sight line between the nurse station and ours. That’s how it should be. It is really important to have other staff members around in a psychiatric hospital. Just today, I had a patient who wanted to touch my hair; I said no, and the patient grabbed my hair and hit my head against a window. I was alone, but there was a nurse on the other side of the window my head hit, so I knew someone would come quickly. Other floors have it worse.

I’ve been pulled to other floors where I’m alone in a place when no one else can see you. If you start getting beaten up you just hope another patient yells for help. It makes the staff on those floors particularly vulnerable. I’ve only been at this job for a short time, and there have been some really bad situations because of understaffing, some of them threatening the lives of staff members. But UPMC keeps our hospital understaffed to save money, and when you’re understaffed you never really feel safe.

During the pandemic, things have gotten worse. COVID hit Western Psych hard this last summer, and the mismanagement has been horrible. The first time I worked with a staff member who tested positive, UPMC waited 48 hours to call me, and by that time I had already seen my family. They didn’t give me any details, but told me I had to quarantine for two weeks. I’m an SBA and I’m only mandated to work 8 hours a week. Usually I work a lot more, but that’s the minimum for the position. But if you get quarantined, you get paid for the minimum required for your position, not what you were scheduled for. In my case, I was scheduled for 96 hours in two weeks, but I got paid for 16. I tried to fight it but they threatened to cut my hours.

You only get to quarantine once, after that you have to use PTO, and there is a massive risk of exposure at my job. A lot of patients got COVID this winter, and because of sensory issues people with disabilities often don’t want to wear the masks, which obviously I can’t blame them for. But it’s a very high risk for the staff. I’m feeding people, cleaning up their bodily fluids. I can’t social distance from someone when I’m showering them. Still, I don’t get a fresh mask after coming into direct contact with someone who is COVID positive.

Then my manager comes onto the unit wearing an N-95 and full PPE to tell us someone has COVID. They never come through our unit, but when they do they’re wearing all the PPE that we don’t have access to. It’s like they were rubbing it in our faces. They told us three patients tested positive and that they’re transferring them to a COVID floor. And they told us we had to staff that floor.

None of us had consented to working in a full-exposure COVID zone. Working with psych patients who can be aggressive is another level of risk. And some of the patients are not good with transitions, so they were even more aggressive with the change. Some staff members got badly hurt and had to go to the ER. We were staffing four wings instead of three with less staff in a super acute and dangerous situation. It was two months of constant fear at work over the holidays. I was working up to 80-hour weeks. I was exhausted all the time. I’d go in thinking I was working an evening shift, they’d keep me for another shift and send me to the COVID floor.

UPMC wouldn’t even provide me with a test after I had to physically restrain an unmasked patient who was positive. Employee Health called me that night and just asked if I ever took off my mask, and if a patient had spit in my eye. Because neither happened, they told me I was low-risk and should go back to work.

It’s like we were sacrificial staff.

When I started this job, I was excited to be working in patient care and I thought the pay was great because it was more than I made working at a gas station. It’s true that the pay at Western Psych is more than minimum wage, but it’s not nearly enough for the job and the way UPMC treats us. Supposedly UPMC has been trying to meet that $15 an hour promise, but they don’t compensate people who have worked here for years and have worked their way up to $15 an hour, so it creates a lot of resentment. It’s just a constant feeling of disrespect.

There are so many jobs at UPMC that are the hardest jobs, and they’re the ones you never hear about. Hard labor keeps hospitals functioning. My job is hard, but the people who collect linens, the janitors, these are all the hardest jobs, especially in a pandemic. And we do not feel valued by UPMC.

I found my passion working at Western Psych, and I love my work. But I got so disillusioned with UPMC. They don’t care about me. They don’t care when I’m at risk of getting COVID and they don’t care if I’m stressed about paying my rent. I can’t support this place and the way they treat their employees, but as someone without a degree, this is the only job I can get as an SBA, so I’m stuck here. So I’m going to keep giving my patients the best care possible, and I’m going to work to hold UPMC accountable to taking care of its workers.

We are UPMC hospital workers — these are our stories from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.