As a mental health worker at Riverview Psychiatric Center, my direct care co-workers and I are on the front lines every day working with patients struggling with serious mental health issues. The challenges we all have faced have been very public, as our hospital has been in the headlines for a number of issues including a loss of federal certification and treating patients that have difficulty with violence.

Riverview direct care staff work hard to make sure patients receive the best care possible. We work with a whole team of excellent clinical staff to ensure our patients can get better and return to their families and their communities. It’s not easy work, but we cherish the successes when we can help these individuals get well.

Among a number of different issues, two of the biggest challenges that faces Riverview are understaffing and staffing turnover. As has been reported and was stated by Chief Justice Daniel Wathen in his reports, mental health workers, nurses and others have been working excessive amounts of overtime to cover for vacancies and acuity. Regularly, the staffing levels are so low that staff are mandated to work overtime, meaning when we are about to punch out after our shift, we are told we can’t leave and have to stay another eight hours. Mental health workers alone worked more than 23,000 hours of overtime in 2015, and more than 2,000 hours of overtime in January of 2016.

This excessive overtime is detrimental to the health and well-being of the staff and ultimately effects patient care. People are working when they are exhausted or when they only have gotten a handful of hours of sleep between shifts. Our families suffer when we don’t come home and when our schedules are so unpredictable.

There are many vacancies for mental health workers and nurses. We need to attract qualified people to apply for these positions, which is hard to do when the work is difficult and they know they will have an unpredictable schedule, forced overtime, and pay that doesn’t compete with other options.

The starting wages offered for mental health workers are too low to attract and, most importantly, retain qualified staff. The base wage for a Mental Health Worker I is just $11.91 an hour. It’s simply not enough to compete with other similar jobs in the area with reliable schedules and significantly less difficult working conditions. Area hospitals offer higher wages and much higher differentials for night and weekend shifts.

Turnover is high, and we lose some of the best staff members because they cannot keep up with the mandated overtime and they can make higher wages elsewhere with a reliable schedule. High turnover means the patients do not have continuity of care, which we know is crucial for their ability to get better.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has submitted a bill to address recruitment and retention. L.D. 1645 would raise base wages for mental health workers, acuity specialists, nurses, psychologists and other positions that are understaffed and dealing with high turnover. This would be a huge help to us, and passage of this bill is critical to stabilizing our hospital.

Our counterparts at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center are working under the same challenging conditions. They are chronically understaffed and working excessive overtime as well. They too are mandated to work overtime and struggle to fill shifts. L.D. 1645 includes Dorothea Dix in the recruitment and retention wage increases.

Department of Corrections recently went through this very problem. Unable to keep staff members, they would hire, train and lose staff faster than they could cover the positions necessary to meet minimal staffing requirements. The Legislature acted last year to increase pay for corrections officers, and since then they have been successful in filling and maintaining those positions, which has stabilized the prisons.

Increasing staffing levels and decreasing staff turnover will help stabilize our hospital and allow us to provide the best treatment possible for our patients, who are some of the most acutely mentally ill people in our state. Increasing wages for direct care staff will also help us recruit qualified staff with experience and education in mental health, which has been identified as a priority by hospital administration.

L.D. 1645 recently passed initial votes in the House and the Senate, and is headed for Gov. Paul LePage’s desk. We sincerely thank every legislator who voted for it. We ask the governor to sign this important bill into law. If he doesn’t, we ask legislators to continue to stand with us and override the veto.

We care about our patients and we want to be able to provide them with the best treatment possible in a safe environment.

Laura Fisher has been a mental health worker at Riverview and AMHI for 28 years. She is the president of AFSCME 1814 at Riverview.

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