Photos by Jason Ruiz

The SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) formally filed today an intent to strike against the Telecare La Casa Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in North Long Beach.

The strike, filed largely under unfair labor practices (Section 8g of the National Labor Relations Act), follows a string of what the labor union described as lax safety measures which they say resulted in patient escapes, employees being assaulted and patients being sexually assaulted by other patients.

Between March of 2010 and March of this year, the Long Beach Police and Fire Departments responded to some 230 calls from the facility. This represents a decrease, according to the LBPD, from years before when more than hundred calls would come in annually.

“The union contacted us months ago,” Sgt. Aaron Eaton of LBPD told the Post. “They had forewarned a strike would happen and this has been continually within the site of the department.”

Given that oftentimes mental illness is involved and therefore requires medical attention, fire officials arrive before police when a response is needed. The facility is unlocked, leading to patients often leaving at-will–what nurses call going AWOL–which means that missing person reports make up a large number of the calls. Sssaults, batteries and other acts of violence have also occurred.

LaCasa02Neilane Besana, a licensed vocational nurse for the facility, says she was attacked twice in the same week two years ago by a female client.

According to Besana, the client was not ready to enter the facility given that the focus is those ready to rehabilitate. After having a phone thrown at her by the client, Besana was sent home to recover, but the next day was assigned to the same unit where the client attacked her. That evening, Besana was once again attacked; this incident remains unacknowledged by management.

“The client had left the facility on her own beforehand–an AWOL–and then returned,” Besana said. “She was already very aggressive towards other females and consistently getting into trouble. She soon became focused on me after she had already bothered and assaulted other clients and staff. Looking back, I didn’t feel confident working there, but then again I didn’t want to be called out for insubordination at that point since I was new… But it’s like this revolving door where management continually permits those not ready for rehabilitation right back in.”

Luz Flores, a mental health worker at the facility, has not returned to work since an altercation occurred on April 17. According to Flores, she encountered a female patient being repeatedly kicked by a male patient and, after confronting the male, was thrown over a bench, hitting her head on the ground. Flores was knocked unconscious and did not come to until she was being transferred to a hospital.

“The worst thing is that I would find myself alone with all the clients by myself at some times,” Flores said. “I would always request a change of unit and again and again I would be in that unit again. I feel foolish for doing what I had to do–it’s like there is nothing I can change.”

Though she filed a police report and was unable to walk, La Casa’s clinic that assessed the altercation deemed Flores able and ready to return to work that day despite having lost consciousness. Kaiser, Flores’s private medical provider, officially requested that she not return to work; La Casa ultimately denied the request.

{loadposition latestnews}”And while I was recovering–you know, a lotta clients care about me and some thought I was dead because I had knocked out… My staff loves me, you know?” Flores said. “So a get-well card was made for me and he [the male client who attacked me] had signed it. ‘God bless you,’ it said. What?”

The 190-bed facility, privately run through Telecare Corp., is largely funded through the County of Los Angeles, which provides the facility $450 per patient per day of care as long as patients come from either the Twin Towers Correctional Facility–the nation’s largest jail system–or Metropolitan State Hospital. Documents show the facility received $18.3 million last year from the county.

According to union representative Sean Wherley, the union approached management–both formally at a bargaining table as well informally–to help heighten safety measures, such as including a security guard on grounds and barricading the nursing area with Plexiglass; however these requests were ultimately denied by management.

The facility has been under scrutiny from Councilmember Steve Neal’s office, who represents the district where the facility is situated.

“A strike is always a last resort,” said Rex Richardson, Chief of Staff for 9th District Councilmember Neal. “Any worker will tell you, ‘I don’t want to strike–but I will if I have to.’ We encourage nothing but a fair solution as promptly as possible, one that comes from the bargaining table and protects patients and employees. In the end, we would obviously love to avoid a strike but if it comes down to that, we would ultimately support it.”

Licensed nurses, rehabilitation counselors and other healthcare workers will ultimately abandon the facility for five days–June 26 through July 1–should demands not be met through management. It remains unclear whether the facility will continue to receive its county funding during the strike, should the strike occur.

“It’s hard to promote safety when we’re not a safe facility itself,” Besana emphasized. “I don’t want my clients or coworkers not feeling like they’re not able to do the work we’re able to–which is good work. We do good things.”

La Casa administrators have been unavailable for comment.

NOTE: This article originally stated this was a 16-bed facility; it is 190-bed facility.

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