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Staffing Cited as Key to Minnesota Mental Health Workers' Safety

PHOTO: Minnesota mental health worker David Ruth says low staffing leaves him and coworkers exposed to a variety of on-the-job hazards, from injuries to sexual assaults. Image courtesy of AFSCME Council 5/YouTube.
PHOTO: Minnesota mental health worker David Ruth says low staffing leaves him and coworkers exposed to a variety of on-the-job hazards, from injuries to sexual assaults. Image courtesy of AFSCME Council 5/YouTube.
April 28, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota mental-health workers say low staffing levels are threatening their safety.

The state's group homes are so short-staffed, said David Ruth, a state employee and chief steward in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council Five, that members of his union's Local 390 are working two or three shifts in a row - sometimes 24-hours straight. Ruth said that's a safety issue when dealing with patients, some of whom the courts have determined are mentally unstable and dangerous - as he said he knows firsthand.

"Clock radios thrown at me; people come at me with chairs. I've seen people get their fingers bit almost until the point where it came off," he said. "We like to kid you're not really a state employee until you get 'tattooed' - and that's when you get bitten and it leaves a scar."

The state has been trying to control costs at the Department of Human Services, but Ruth said that can leave them with too few people to deal with situations.

Ruth said he and fellow mental health aides don't blame the patients for what happens. He said you have to have compassion for them to stay on the job. However, he added, policymakers need to face the reality of what's going on in the wards.

"I knew I was never going to get rich in this field," he said. "And I think I can speak for all the staff. We all have compassion towards our individuals, and we don't blame them at all. That doesn't mean that you should get beat up for that."

He said he's heard of mental-health workers being burned, having concussions and being sexually assaulted. He noted that unsafe conditions mean a lot more employee turnover, as well as injuries.

"No one comes to work to get beat up," he said. "We know that there's going to be some level of danger. However, the danger that we're seeing now is not what we signed up for."

According to the union, mental-health workers will be protesting at six sites around the state today, which is Workers' Memorial Day, honoring those who die or are injured on the job.

More information is online at afscmemn.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - MN