Addiction center health professionals reclaim their voice

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Katherine Vaughan found her passion working with people trying to recover from addiction. As a licensed practical nurse at Sunrise House, an addiction treatment center in Lafayette Township, N.J., Vaughan enjoys working with patients and providing them with the care they need to get back on their feet.

"People come here from everywhere, but they all have one thing in common—the disease of addiction," she says. "They are often at their lowest point, and we provide them with the treatment necessary to give them the strength to build themselves back up. As staff, we give them the reassurance they need and the hope that things can get better."

Although the staff at Sunrise House strived to provide the best care, Vaughan and her colleagues noticed a change in the quality of care over the years. And then American Addiction Centers, a national for-profit chain, purchased the center in 2015. The staff hoped promises of increased staff and higher salaries would make things better, but those promises were not kept. Even worse, in March 2016, the New Jersey Department of Human Services cited the AAC for 30 deficiencies at three locations, many of which were at Sunrise House. The deficiencies mirrored many of the staff concerns, including a failure to maintain appropriate levels of licensed or certified counseling staff, lack of required staff training and lack of direct clinical supervision.

"I work at Sunrise House because I want to help people who are in recovery, but I knew something needed to change," says LPN Sheila Schicker, who has worked at the facility for 10 years. "We tried to go the traditional route to address our problems, but things got to a place where we needed to take matters into our own hands."

So the staff began to talk about unionizing. "As nurses, we are obligated to advocate for the best possible care. That's why we wanted a union," says Vaughan. It wasn't just the nurses who wanted to make sure patients were able to receive the best care; a majority of Sunrise House's other workers wanted a union too.

"The nurses spearheaded the effort to unionize, and we all are glad they did," says Frank McCafferty, who has worked in maintenance at Sunrise House for 18 years. "Our facility used to be like a family. Most of us no longer have a say in the work that we do, and our working conditions have become unsafe for clients and ourselves."

After raising concerns for the health and safety of workers and patients at the facility, workers at Sunrise House filed on June 9 for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. And on June 29, the nurses, clinical staff and employees voted nearly five to one to join Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey's largest healthcare union and an AFT affiliate.

The workers did their homework before reaching out to the union. "We heard about HPAE's focus on excellence in healthcare and its goal of putting patients before profits. We determined that HPAE was the union we needed," says Vaughan.

Staff members at Sunrise House have "dedicated their working lives to help those with substance abuse. Employees had concerns with safety, staffing and standards that they could not address without a voice in their workplace," says HPAE President Ann Twomey, who is an AFT vice president. "With the current opioid addiction epidemic, the workers at Sunrise House provide a vital service to those struggling with addiction," she notes. "They deserve to have the opportunity to improve the conditions they work under as they increase the possibility for a better life for their clients."

"Being respected and having a voice in what affects patients and their families can only make Sunrise House better for everyone," says Schicker. And, she adds, the union victory has made all the difference in the world for her and her co-workers. "I'm happy to come to work again, and I can see this has boosted other people's morale too."

"Now that we're unionized, I'm hoping that we can rebuild a family atmosphere," says McCafferty. "Sunrise House is a beautiful place. As workers, we want to be treated with respect and dignity and to be heard. I'm happy that we are part of a union and we have voice."

"Health professionals know that their working conditions are patients' healing conditions," says AFT President Randi Weingarten, "We're ready to stand beside them as they fight to reclaim their dignity and respect on the job and to advocate for safe conditions for their patients."

[Adrienne Coles, AFT press release, HPAE press release]