By MELISSA CROCKETT MESKE
Nurses employed at the Alton Mental Health Center gathered along IL-140 outside the facility’s grounds on Friday morning, June 2, 2023, with the support of other colleagues and loved ones, united in a rally cry for action from the state regarding unsafe work conditions and unfair labor practices that they have been forced to work under for months now – some say even years.
Represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA), these nurses talked about how the Alton Mental Health Center management has taken advantage of the availability of agency, or “traveling,” nurses to fill the critical workforce shortage on-site rather than posting and filling the current 17 full-time nursing staff vacancies.
Michelle Logue is one of the nurses employed at Alton Mental Health Center represented by the local INA/RC 23. A past president of the union group at the center after serving eight years in that position, Logue continues as a co-chair and as one of its union stewards.
“We’ve been short for years and years,” Logue said. “I’ve been here for 25 years, and it’s never not been short. But it’s ridiculous now. We can’t get nurses hired. And it’s not that there are not nurses out there applying. We’ve got our agency nurses wanting to apply and they can’t get on. Now, you have to ask yourself, why? Where is the problem as to why even they can’t get on?”
Alton Mental Health Center, located at 4500 College Ave., Alton, is a State of Illinois psychiatric hospital and healthcare facility. Because the vacancies are state employee positions, postings for the vacancies must first be approved by CMS (Illinois’ Central Management Services, the state’s hiring division) before they can be published or filled.
INA member nurse Toni Holly said, “HR blames CMS every month at our INA meetings, stating that they [CMS] are not approving our nurse vacancies for HR to publish and get nurses in. Whether or not that’s true, that’s been the excuse for years.”
“I’ve even asked who the point person is at CMS, or maybe could we take it to the next level,” said fellow INA nurse Tina Broyles, also a union steward. “Why can’t we find out who that point person is? Why aren’t these positions getting approved? Why do we have to work with one nurse for 44 patients? That’s definitely unsafe.”
The Illinois Nurses Association is the union that represents State of Illinois nurses employed at the mental health facility, as well as nurses and other healthcare workers in both the private and public sectors throughout Illinois.
Several of the INA representative nurses at the rally pointed out that the current staffing ratio is one nurse for every 44 patients. Under normal conditions, Broyles shared, they are asked to work 1 nurse for 22 patients, “which is hard enough.” Nurses are currently being forced to work and cover two units at the facility because of the staffing shortage. They stressed that this unsafe working condition puts both staff and patient at extreme risk.
“These are not your normal medical patients, although many have medical issues as well,” Broyles further noted. “These are criminally insane patients that have been sent to us for committing some kind of crime or unfit at the time to understand the court system.”
“How many weeks do we have to work 16-hour shifts, day after day after day, and go out during a violent situation, being mentally fatigued, still having to make the right judgment call?” Broyles asked.
The situation is further impacted by the mandated 16-hour shifts the nurses are having to take on because of the critical shortage. The nurses said that, because of the nature of their work and the extended shifts, it’s inevitable that fatigue sets in, both physically and mentally.
“With each shift, there’s almost always a medication error or an injury,” Holly added.
“Patients and staff are getting attacked because we don’t have enough staff to handle the violent, forensic mentally ill patients here,” nurse Michelle Mincy added. “So, essentially someone is going to get the crap beat out of them until someone is freed up and can get there.”
“Today, on Charlie 1, our most acute and dangerous unit in the entire facility, they have one certified and three uncertified staff working. Uncertified staff cannot put their hands on patients when the patient becomes violent and it becomes necessary, so it’s left up to the one certified staff, the one nurse, to deal with,” Mincy added.
Holly explained further: “Per policy, you have to have a minimum of three certified staff present to put hands on them, or with a take-down.”
Mincy further noted, “We currently, as of today, have five off work who have been injured, and another 12 vacancies. That means we’re working 17 short.” The INA stated that there are usually 26 nurses who work at the center.
“This also means that the uncertified staff are missing their breaks and lunches,” Holly added, “because they cannot leave the patients unattended.”
“And with all this mandated overtime, there’s no time left for our families or any kind of work-life balance,” Mincy said further.
“We are exposed to possible danger every day. We have one-on-one contact with all our patients and are the front line to all the behaviors or mental episodes that occur. We would like fair pay for our job as well as safe working conditions,” said Broyles.
“We need these positions filled, and with permanent full-time staff, not agency or travelling nurses,” said Logue. “The agency nurses come and then go, and that just increases the workplace safety and critical shortage issues.”
In an official statement from the INA, it was noted that Alton union steward Jean Campbell, RN, had filed a number of unfair labor grievances against the facility.
“Alton management continues utilizing agency nurses and not hiring INA nurses,” Campbell had said in her grievance filings. “There are no postings and no substantive effort to fill vacancies. They just continue to bring in more agency, giving them preferential treatment over INA.” Campbell further pointed out that the agency nurses are not adequately trained for the work at Alton Mental Health Center, so INA nurses often end up with double the work to do.
The IBJ requested a response from state officials early Friday afternoon, June 2. Late Saturday evening, June 3, Illinois Department of Human Services spokesperson Marisa Kollias provided this statement:
“At IDHS, we are always working to staff up as quickly as possible as we have faced a nationwide staffing shortage. To address these shortages, we have invested in hiring strategies. We are committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment is essential for our workforce. We look forward to a productive, continued partnership with INA.”
When asked what the hopes coming out of the rally were, concurrence from the nurses was clear: “Permanent staff. And an awareness that we’re working unsafely.”
“Maybe then it will open their eyes and realize something must be done. People go to the hospital constantly or are off because they’re hurt. We have to have nurses hired. There has to be a change,” Broyles concluded.
All photos by Melissa Crockett Meske/Illinois Business Journal.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to include the statement received from IDHS after the story had been published.]