Gov. Jay Inslee is right to want to give competitive pay raises to employees at Western State Hospital, the professionals who do the emotionally draining, dangerous and often thankless work of caring for Washingtonians plagued by profound mental illness.
If there’s consensus on anything in Olympia, it’s that Washington’s mental health system is badly broken. A column by a Western State psychiatrist in Friday’s News Tribune shared one perspective on how staff are picking up the pieces, including shards of damaged morale.
Fair compensation is the least that should be done for these saints who continue to work in bleak conditions amid an ongoing institutional repair job, which will take tens of millions of dollars and several years to complete. Meanwhile, the hospital remains under federal oversight after being slapped with multiple “immediate jeopardy” notices the last few years.
A wave of pay raises and new hires last year was a good first step to fix the chronic understaffing problem. After touring the Lakewood hospital Tuesday, Inslee met with the TNT Editorial Board and gushed about great progress he’s seen. He noted that 388 positions have been filled in recent months, with another 60 to 65 needed before the hospital will be at full strength.
New labor agreements with psychiatrists, registered nurses and other Western State staff are among the contracts Inslee agreed to last year with nearly 40 public employee unions.
Now, as the Democratic governor scuffles with legislative Republicans to ratify the first across-the-board state salary increases in nearly a decade, he doesn’t just say it’s the right thing to do; he preaches an urgency to compete with the private sector.
Opinions vary on whether Inslee’s reasoning holds true across every state job category. Republicans justifiably argue that the Legislature should be given a strong hand in the collective-bargaining process, rather than being expected to give a straight up or down vote on Inslee’s entire $732 million employee compensation package.
We agree that state leaders must figure out a way to be more selective, and that means a greater role for the legislative branch. When a governor is allowed to negotiate sweeping labor contracts in secret, as has been the practice in Washington since 2003, he’s in the regal position to reward all the unions that fund his campaigns and help get him re-elected.
For now, however, GOP leaders who run the Senate would do well to advocate substantial raises for Western State employees as they’ve already done for state troopers and prison workers.
For everyone else, the Senate’s proposed 2017-18 budget offers flat raises of $500 per year for the next two years. That’s laughable for high-demand mental health specialists and a sure tactic to run them out the door, as Inslee observed.
“We’d be right back in the soup we were in (a year ago),” he told our Editorial Board. “We’d go right back to a staffing shortage that results in safety problems. And goodness knows what the federal government would do.”
Some of Inslee’s most generous wage hikes would go to registered nurses (27.5 percent over three years), while psychiatric social workers would enjoy an even bigger bump (50 percent).
Those big numbers are driven by a shallow labor pool. The hospital’s nursing supervisor said last week that the shortage of nurses and psychiatrists remains acute, leading to a “massive” use of voluntary and mandatory overtime.
A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health projected that by the year 2025, the unmet need for psychiatrists will increase to 6,090, or a deficit of 12 percent of the workforce.
The pressure will only intensify as more communities wake up to mental illness as a pervasive but treatable condition, unworthy of social stigma but worthy of financial resources.
Next year’s opening of a 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Tacoma, jointly operated by MultiCare and Franciscan on the campus of Allenmore Hospital, will require dozens of professionals to staff its wards.
The Senate’s top budget writer, Republican Sen. John Braun, says his caucus means no disrespect to hard-working mental health workers. The GOP is just making a statement against the all-or-nothing approach to labor contracts dictated by the governor.
“In the perfect world, we’d be able to isolate where we have employee turnover problems and emergent state needs,” Braun told a TNT editor Thursday. “We should be doing that in the legislative process.”
His caucus did sign off on a new contract for 93 Western State psychiatrists and pharmacists. But several hundred nurses, psychologists, counselors, forensic evaluators, security attendants and mental health technicians are on the outside looking in.
Braun says Republicans will insist on some kind of collective-bargaining reform this session before they give ground on Democrat priorities —namely, pay raises.
That seems like a defensible negotiating posture, because the mental health system is not the only thing broken in Washington.