Shortage of staff and unsafe conditions threaten Oregon’s behavioral health workforce • Oregon Capital Chronicle

Every year around this time, Oregon unions honor colleagues who have died on the job. This year is especially poignant for members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or Oregon AFSCME, with the death late last year of Haley Rogers, a 26-year-old mental health worker.

She was stabbed to death by a resident at work while working alone an overnight shift at a 10-bed treatment center in Gresham. Her death was preventable and we must ensure something like this never happens again.

There are issues specific to this workplace as well as to the entire system that need to be addressed. The company did not follow basic safety protocols. Knives were not adequately stored, people worked alone, employees were not given tools such as walkie-talkies and the facility lacked sufficient security cameras, according to an Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that took place before her death.

The company was fined, but it was too late. Her family and our community have needlessly lost a dedicated, kind and compassionate soul who should be with us today.

Oregon’s mental health crisis means that too many people have not had access to adequate and appropriate care through no fault of their own, and too many mental health professionals on the front lines are bearing the burden of decades of underinvestment. Professionals like Haley do this work because they care deeply about providing Oregonians with the care they need to maximize their potential, but things can’t continue this way. The state cannot hope to recruit and retain much-needed workers if people are not safe at work.

Since that terrible night, raising the alarm about the risks of working alone in understaffed and unsafe workplaces has taken on new urgency for Oregon’s behavioral health workforce and our union. Haley’s experience working in unsafe and alarming conditions is common and not unique.

During this past legislative session, AFSCME behavioral health professionals shared their stories with lawmakers about what they face on the job. They report working in isolation and without sufficient staff, basic training or protocols. Behaviorists report having to walk to home visits alone, without knowing what they will do face when they knock on doors in the most remote parts of the state where there is no cell service and it can take 45 minutes to an hour to respond to calls. Behavioral health professionals are often left to their own devices to best manage incredibly high-stress, high-risk, and high-stakes situations.

Oregon’s broken mental health system is well known and well documented. Instead of accessing early interventions, people struggle to find care as their circumstances escalate and once they receive care, it may often be in a facility that is understaffed and unlikely to have culturally specific care available to those who need it.

Lack of staff is also causing serious harm to Oregon’s youth. While hundreds wait for care, almost 100 beds for people under 17 are empty due to lack of staff. Families have no choice but to send their children out of state for care, making the difficult situation even more painful and disrupting family ties.

Building new beds and new facilities is part of the solution. Increasing the number of employees in the pipeline is part of the answer. But neither can solve the problem alone. Oregon will never solve the mental health crisis that affects so many families until we ensure that the treatment people receive is adequate and safe for those who need it and those who provide it.

Last session, at the urging of Oregon AFSCME members, state lawmakers established a Task Force on Improving the Safety of Behavioral Health Workers with recommendations to be adopted in the 2025 Legislature. We have also advocated for and achieved substantial investments in an apprenticeship program for unions and employers, which allows both current and future behavioral health professionals to earn advanced degrees without having to invest the time or money in an advanced degree and even receive payment or financial assistance for basic needs. while they are in the program. This innovative approach provides new federal dollars to help expand our state’s employee pipeline by hundreds of people.

As we remember and honor Haley and all those who died on the job this year, we will continue to fight for the safety of all workers and working families across Oregon.