UPMC Does Not Care About the Employees Who Look After People in Crisis
By Sam Tillman
I’m a Milieu Therapist at Western Psychiatric Hospital. I do direct patient care, so I’m there if a patient has a breakdown or becomes violent, and I also run therapeutic groups and things like that. This is a tough job, no one gets into this kind of work because they think it will be easy. But what you do expect is for hospital management to treat their workers with dignity and respect and make sure you can do the job as safely as possible.
At our workplace, the biggest problem in keeping staff safe is lack of staffing. There just aren’t enough of us to keep each other safe. I’ve been physically attacked by patients and I’ve been sexually assaulted by patients. Working in psych, you’re going to be dealing with patients with mental disturbances — that’s the job. But what can be avoided is having a staff person alone on a floor. And sometimes that person is a pull from another unit, so then you’re there by yourself with patients who you don’t know, and you’re coming in not knowing what patients have been dealing with that day, so you don’t know what you’re getting into. That’s where a lot of violence occurs, and that is avoidable.
I’m from West Virginia, and when I moved to Pittsburgh I was looking for UPMC jobs because I know they’re a big employer. I was excited to get the job at Western Psych because I really care about this kind of work and want to be at an in-patient facility. The job has not turned out to be what I expected. UPMC did not prepare me for the level of violence I would be exposed to and they definitely did not prepare me for the level of disregard management shows for workers.
They don’t pay us enough for the high level of care we provide and the danger we face. Time and time again we raise these issues with management; we’ve told them we need more staffing, more precautions, better control over where we’re going to be working. The go-to response is: “we hear you, we’re seeing what we can do.” And then nothing changes. It’s a polite non-answer.
This was already a traumatizing and exhausting job before COVID, but the past year has really highlighted management’s disregard for us. Again, some of the risk at this job is going to be unavoidable. If you have a patient undergoing extreme distress, they’re not going to wear a mask. That’s understandable. But our employers should give us as many tools as they can to keep us safe.
When a unit was exposed to COVID or when someone had symptoms, they would put it on a “yellow” or “red” zone, and they’d tell us to avoid moving through those areas of the hospital, but they would still pull people to that unit then send them back to their units with no extra precautions.
And they kept raising the threshold for what counts as exposure. It got to the point where they were saying it wasn’t exposure if you were directly in physical contact with patients who were positive — if you were wearing a mask and it was less than 15 minutes, they’d say you’re fine. and when you were exposed to their standards, you only got to quarantine once. I had to quarantine twice and the second time I had to use two weeks of PTO.
And for the extremely high risk of our jobs, UPMC has not given us any hazard pay. Even Starbucks was giving hazard pay. We got no hazard pay despite the fact that there was a federal program to provide it for frontline workers like me making less than $20 an hour. UPMC declined to participate in this program.
The truth is, I think we’re disposable for them. There is an extremely high turnover rate as it is, and maybe they think it’s cheaper to keep the status quo than to hire enough staff to keep us safe actually pay what it would take to retain people. I’ve been at Western Psych for three years, and that gives me seniority over a lot of people. Most people burn out, go to an out-patient facility, or leave psych altogether. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered it. But I like working with my patients here and I am really committed to increasing workers rights at Western Psych so things can improve for the future.
But as far as UPMC is concerned, Western Psych is the last to receive updates, we’re frequently under-funded, and honestly it seems like UPMC doesn’t care about this facility as much as other hospitals. If I wanted to be cynical I’d say it’s because we tend to serve people who are less privileged. We aren’t performing surgeries that you can bill a lot of money for and so it’s not profitable.
I didn’t get into this work because I want to make corporate hospitals a lot of money. I like helping people. People like myself who have stayed at this job do so because we care about our patients. I believe that people who are dealing with extreme mental health disturbances deserve care and respect. I just wish UPMC respected us and fairly compensated us.
Despite paying lip service to us and calling us “heroes,” UPMC does not care about the employees who look after people in crisis. Not only do they not take care of us, they try to stop us from organizing to take care of ourselves. UPMC is scared of organized labor. They retaliate against people for talking about the union. They spend a lot of time trying to prevent us from organizing. Just how committed they are to preventing us from unionizing shows that organized labor is powerful, shows that when we work together, we can improve care and improve our working conditions.