Mental health workers in Oregon vote to unionize

After months of organizing, mental and behavioral health professionals at Legacy Health’s Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland voted overwhelmingly to join the Oregon Nurses Association on Aug. 23. The majority of the 62 healthcare professionals made the decision to unionize to improve staffing and safety, raise patient care standards, have a say in healthcare decisions, and guarantee fair pay for frontline mental health workers.

Photo of Oregon mental and behavioral health professionals celebrating the vote

The group consists of crisis intervention specialists, counselors, therapists and social workers. They are the most recent group in the Legacy Health system to unionize with ONA.

“Supporting people experiencing a mental health crisis in a compassionate, caring way is more than just a job. A union will help us advocate for and provide the highest-quality patient care by ensuring we are part of the decision-making process,” says Holly Friesz, a crisis intervention specialist at Unity Center. “Unionizing will allow us to bargain for better working conditions in order to improve patient care.”

Legacy’s Unity Center is a 24-hour behavioral and mental health services center offering in-patient mental health treatment and psychiatric emergency services. Despite numerous challenges ranging from short staffing; an increase in patients; a long-standing lack of beds, services and investment in mental and behavioral health at the state and health system levels; and the ongoing effects of COVID-19, mental and behavioral health professionals at Unity Center have provided high-quality, trauma-informed, multidisciplinary psychiatric treatment to Oregon’s most vulnerable adults and adolescents since 2017.

The group will advocate for better patient-to-worker ratios to allow more Oregonians in crisis to receive comprehensive mental, behavioral and addiction care. Frontline mental healthcare professionals look forward to helping turn the page at Unity Center and holding Legacy’s leadership accountable for ensuring professional healthcare standards that will improve outcomes for Oregonians in crisis.

“Forming a union helps us reach goals like safety, retention and access to education, together,” says Ryen McGrath, a clinical therapist lead at Unity Center. “The union isn’t some faceless third-party organization. The union is us, organized.”

[Adrienne Coles, ONA press release]