Caring for the Caretakers

Sonoma Developmental Center employees' union files suit against the state of California


The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, the union representing about 15,000 employees statewide, including 711 at the Sonoma Developmental Center, is suing the state of California.

The union alleges that while there are mandated furloughs for state employees, the facilities where union members work—prisons, developmental centers and state hospitals—must nonetheless operate 24/7 to care for clients and inmates, and must maintain legal staffing ratios. Members are often denied use of furlough time off which, according to the union’s legal team, is against the law.

“Unpaid furloughs implemented by the governor affect overtime and complicate level-of-care staffing,” the union says in a statement. “State employees in state hospitals, prisons and developmental centers such as Sonoma Developmental Center do not get ‘furlough Fridays’ off as state employees do elsewhere, and are required to bank their unpaid time. If they are allowed to take the time, their shifts must be covered by other employees, further increasing overtime. However, level-of-care employees frequently are denied furlough usage due to staffing needs and additional overtime costs.”

Brady Oppenheim, spokeswoman for the union, clarifies: “We are saying the governor’s plan as it pertains to our employees is illegal. It is violating federal and state laws. The workers are working 40 hours and getting paid for 32.”

The lawsuit hearing, originally scheduled for Jan. 15, has been postponed to March 19 because of scheduling conflicts by the state.

“Sonoma Developmental Center in particular has been slammed by these ongoing budget cuts,” Oppenheim says. “In addition to the unfair furlough issue, 54 of our members, psychiatric technician assistants, were laid off in September, and the state instituted a hiring freeze, which means costly and dangerous overtime.”

In October of last year, this cost the state $842,000 for 29,085 hours of overtime. Just nine months earlier, in January of 2009, that number was more than 6,000 hours less.

“It all leads us to ask, ‘How does decreasing staffing and safety and increasing taxpayer costs help the state budget?'” Oppenheim says. “These facilities depend on staffing. When staffing is harmed, it affects client care and taxpayers.”

The furlough time is put in a time bank, and, theoretically, employees will be able to use those hours at a later date. At 24-hour state facilities, however, that later date has yet to come—exactly when employees can cash in their furlough time is as elusive under the new state budget as time-and-a-half pay for holidays. Meanwhile, all banked furlough time will expire after two years from the end of the furlough program, currently set to end on June 30 of this year.

Sonoma Developmental Center is operated by the California Department of Developmental Services. There are 645 clients served at the thousand-acre facility, with lakes, a residential campground, a store, cafeteria, post office, a petting farm, sports fields, a swimming pool and other various amenities.

“The real issue here is the clients,” says Rob Matteri, a psychiatric technician at the developmental center. “When staff is limited, they are the ones who suffer.”

When a psych tech is hired at Sonoma Developmental Center, they are trained that the primary goal is direct care with the clients. However, staffers complain, to comply with state law requires that time be mostly spent processing documents. “It is basically how everything gets done,” Matteri explains.

As mental facilities closed statewide in the last several years, Sonoma Developmental Center—once only open to people with developmental disabilities—began accepting people with dual diagnosis mental disorders.

“It is a very challenging population,” Matteri says.

There was only one day in February that did not call for overtime, he says, adding that work has been increased exponentially and there is a huge physical toll. “And beyond the obvious physical toll on the employees,” he says, “there is the issue of paperwork.”

When there are incidents where a client has an outburst or a suicide attempt, proper charting needs to be completed, but when staffing is limited, it occasionally gets looked over. “When someone is having a behavior, you can’t ask them to stop so you can file a report,” he says. “The paperwork is what gets the people care. If you minimize the behavior and don’t document it, they may lose medication and medical attention, and that is terrible for the client.”

Matteri doesn’t feel that the furloughs have done anyone any good. “Nobody is winning,” he says. “I am a Californian, born and raised. If the plan saved anything—if taking a personal hit for a little bit solved some of our problems—I would be all for it.

“It is not that I am not paid well,” Matteri adds. “I bought a house. I have a new car. But beyond the client issue, it is a principle thing.”

Oppenheim says that with the delay in the lawsuit, the union has been able to gather additional evidence to bolster their case. “The primary goal of the lawsuit,” she says, “is a day’s pay for a day’s work.”