ColumbiaCare Services Workers File for Union Representation With Oregon AFSCME

PORTLAND, Ore. – Citing major safety and continuity of care concerns, a strong majority of 250 eligible residential behavioral health staff at ColumbiaCare Services, a statewide nonprofit based in Medford, submitted union authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) this week. A union vote is likely to occur in February.

ColumbiaCare offers a range of behavioral health services with an emphasis on 24-hour residential treatment, transitional and supportive housing, and outpatient services throughout the state. The union-eligible group includes the residential associates, peer support workers, and personal care assistants who provide support for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. These employees work in group-home facilities, promoting the development of life skills through therapeutic interventions, performing housekeeping, preparing meals, and administering medication while keeping accurate clinical documentation.

“Forming a union will allow us to pursue better working conditions and have a say in the decisions that affect all of us who work at ColumbiaCare and our clients,” Residential Associate Melanie Hall said. “We believe a union will help us better serve our clients’ needs and ensure the wellbeing of ColumbiaCare Services staff.”

Earlier this month, several ColumbiaCare staff were forced to remain in darkened and unheated facilities for over 24 hours, providing blankets and cold sandwiches to clients who had no choice but to endure near-freezing indoor temperatures. Unplowed and icy facility parking lots presented slipping hazards, and prevented staff and emergency personnel from entering or leaving the facility for several days.

"One of the reasons I’m joining the union is because while we have repeatedly expressed concern for the safety of both staff and clients, we had those concerns dismissed as unwarranted,” said Lee DeLay, a Residential Associate.

Policy during emergencies is not the only safety concern raised by ColumbiaCare staff. In the wake of the tragic stabbing death of a mental health worker at Cascadia Behavioral Health, a Portland-based mental health agency similar to ColumbiaCare, staff at ColumbiaCare proactively asked leadership to eliminate single-staffing completely.

“When you’re working alone, you are responsible not only for your own safety, but for the safety of the residents in your care; and when there is a crisis, those responsibilities create an impossible situation,” DeLay said. “Basic precautions like having a second staff member there or a body alert aren’t unreasonable precautions. Every facility is going to have its blind spots, but doing what we can to minimize the risks for both staff and our residents shouldn’t be controversial."

Following submission of the authorization cards, workers requested that ColumbiaCare Services voluntarily recognize their union or remain neutral in the NLRB election process and allow workers to use their voice freely without coercion.

“Nobody knows more about what’s needed to provide communities in crisis the best possible care than the workers doing the work. By coming together to form their union, ColumbiaCare Services workers will have the power to affect real and lasting change that will benefit their clients and everyone who works at ColumbiaCare” said Joe Baessler, Executive Director of Oregon AFSCME.