AUGUSTA — Four current and former workers at Riverview Psychiatric Center say serious staffing problems continue at the 92-bed state mental health hospital, which last September lost federal certification and $20 million in funding.

The worker complaints, outlined in recent interviews with the Kennebec Journal, offer new insight into staff discontent at the beleaguered hospital, which has come under fire about how dangerous patients are handled and other safety concerns. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revoked Riverview’s certification for a 20-bed unit last year based on inspections, including the disclosure that Kennebec County sheriff’s deputies had used stun guns and handcuffs to control patients in the state-run hospital.

In October, two female social workers at Riverview Psychiatric Center formally complained that they were subject to a hostile work environment that included bullying by fellow employees and claiming that “significantly decreased productivity and wasted state resources.” The women told the Kennebec Journal in a recent interview that they reported various staff problems at Riverview and failed to get assistance from directors and administrators at the state hospital and from other sources.

Much of their discontent centered around the portion of the hospital designated for civil patients, those who are not there in connection with a criminal case.

By May, the two women who filed the complaints were transferred out of the state mental health hospital to do outpatient work. On June 30, one of them, Judith Dorsey, of Belgrade, who had worked at Riverview since November 2009, was fired.

The two intensive case managers at the state hospital in Augusta had filed the grievance on behalf of themselves and others, accusing “certain mental health workers” at the state hospital of “deliberately making false statements and interfering with the work of certain social workers.” The complaint remains unresolved.

Specifically, it charges that a social worker tried to get money from a hospital safe on Aug. 21, 2013, on behalf of a client so he could have a treat for his birthday.

“The mental health worker who is in charge of the safe refused to give her money and berated her for wasting the money on snacks,” the grievance states. “(The) inappropriate comments of the mental health worker were overheard by a witness. … In addition, the mental health worker was tired of all the receipts and attempted to throw them away, but (the social worker) intervened and held onto the receipts. Later the mental health worker accused (the social worker) of stealing the money.”

The complaint says because the social worker had kept all the receipts, all the money was accounted for.

In another incident, the social workers alleged that a mental health worker incorrectly told people that “the social workers were not allowed to be in a room alone with clients, which resulted in the need for nurses to spend their time unnecessarily sitting in the room with the social workers and clients resulting in a waste of state resources.”

A third Riverview social worker, Georgia Gunning, of South China, said she tried to file a grievance alleging a hostile workplace but was not permitted to do so by union personnel. She said she also attempted to join the Dorsey grievance and was told she could not do that, either.

She had begun keeping detailed records of various incidents at the hospital and reported to Capitol Police in Augusta that while she was out recovering from injuries she suffered in a traffic accident, her personal items, including office supplies she purchased with her own money, had been stolen from her office cubicle at Riverview.

On July 17, some of the original items and replacements for others were returned to her by a Capitol Police officer who met with her off hospital grounds.

Mary Anne Turowski, director of politics and legislation for MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, the union that represents social workers at the hospital, including Dorsey and her coworker in the original hostile work environment complaint, said she could not comment on individual grievance and representational issues. MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 represents about 100 of Riverview’s 300 or so employees, including nurses and social workers,

“We certainly understand Riverview is a challenging and difficult place to work,” Turowski said. “The turnover is great, and pay is inadequate for the work they have to do.”

Social workers, including the two who filed the grievance, earn an average of about $20 an hour.

John A. Martins, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates Riverview, said he would not comment on personnel actions, including specific employee actions.

“Providing a safe environment for patients, staff and visitors is essential for Riverview to proceed with the introduction of a recovery focused model of care and treatment,” Martins said in an e-mail sent on behalf of the hospital administration and the department.

“To that end, the leadership team at (Riverview Psychiatric Center) has been actively engaged in clearly reinforcing the expectations of all employees to concentrate on this mission. (Riverview Psychiatric Center) has a renewed focused on the dignity and recovery of patients in a high-quality, safe environment. Staff actions that do not align with this focus have been handled appropriately.”

Martins said the turnover rate for employees at Riverview stands at 15 percent, the same as in 2013. Documents from earlier years show Riverview’s worker turnover rate was 12.79 percent in 2005, and was cited as one of the institution’s accomplishments because it showed a decline from 14.29 percent the previous year.

The turnover rate for 2014 includes Mary Louise McEwen, Riverview superintendent for almost five years, who was ousted in March in a department-directed leadership change. A week later, that job was filled by Jay Harper, who had retired recently as a patient advocate at Riverview, working with the Disability Rights Center.

Harper did not respond to an email sent directly to him about the worker complaints.

Turowski said the hospital has taken steps to address the turnover rate.

“As recently as this spring, administration agreed to a recruitment and retention stipend for the nurses,” Turowski said, adding it was the second time this practice was implemented. “At the end of the day, this impacts the patients. The patients that need a place to get better are impacted by this whole range of challenges.”

Two additional women quit their jobs at Riverview this year, saying the stress of working there was too much.

Deidre Dawson, a mental health worker, walked off the job May 20. “When you report something, you are the problem,” Dawson said in an interview. “There’s bullying and retaliation for you doing that.”

Prior to her abrupt departure, she had been using time under the Family Medical Leave Act to deal with the stress. Part of it, she said, was worrying about whether someone would push a button to summon help if she was attacked by a patient.

“Whether we like each other or not, it should be a united front,” Dawson said.

Dawson has yet to find a new job and said she needs to “decompress from 11 years there,” adding that she was “so stressed out I ran from my phone when it rang.”

Tina Ashlock, of Mercer, a registered nurse who had worked the 3-to-11 p.m. shift at Riverview for two and a half years, said the atmosphere was so stressful that she gave two weeks’ notice and left on Jan. 31, 2014, without another job lined up. She now works at a nursing home and said she is much happier. Ashlock said she complained about bullying at Riverview on many occasions and was told to stop sending emails about it to the director of nursing.

She said the hospital has a “negative culture, one of no transparency. It is not safe to report anything,” Ashlock said. “If you report, you will become the problem.”

Sylvie Perry, the field representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents about 110 workers at Riverview, said Friday she was unaware of complaints about a hostile work environment. That union represents mental health workers and recreation aides who are direct-care providers.

The grievance by Dorsey and the other social workers was investigated, and in an initial response on Oct. 22, Aimee Rice, the hospital’s human resource manager, found no violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

“While the state recognizes that there have been personality conflicts between (the women) and certain mental health workers, such behavior does not meet the level nor definition of ‘hostile work environment,'” Rice wrote.

She concluded, “Both the mental health workers and social workers have a responsibility to foster good communication and teamwork on the unit. It is my belief that both groups have some ownership of this ongoing conflict.”

However, on May 12, Dorsey and her coworker were notified that the state Department of Health & Human Services “has determined probable cause to conduct an investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment.”

As a result, the two were to be transferred from Riverview’s Lower Kennebec unit, which normally houses civil patients versus forensic or crime-related patients, and they were banned from being in the unit at all. Civil patients can be voluntary or involuntary admissions; forensic patients are at the hospital under a court order because of serious crimes.

The transfer letter was written and signed by Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper. “This is not disciplinary action, but is being taken to allow for the completion of the investigation,” Harper said in the letter. It is unclear whether the investigation is complete.

Dorsey said he handed the letters to them. The two women were told they were being moved to the Riverview Assertive Community Treatment Team. They were temporarily placed in offices at the former MaineGeneral Medical Center and given several social work clients, and later they were relocated to Department of Health & Human Services offices at 41 Anthony Ave.

Dorsey was fired June 30 because she allegedly misused case management time while taking a patient shopping. She is grieving that termination through the union as well.

Gunning, who has worked for the state for nearly 15 years, the last one at Riverview, had been out of work for 13 weeks as a result of serious injuries suffered in an April 6 motor vehicle crash. She resumed work June 30 to ensure she could keep her job and health insurance coverage, she said.

Two days later she was placed on administrative leave with pay. A July 2 letter from Harper says the department “has probable cause to conduct an investigation into allegations of a breach of confidentiality regarding client records.”

Gunning, who wears a metal brace around her torso because of a fractured vertebrae, denies that.

Ashlock remains seriously concerned about how Riverview patients are faring.

“I had every intention of remaining at Riverview,” Ashlock said. “I had many good things to offer them, and they rejected them. There is no way you would get me to go back into that building.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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