About 200 workers from state mental hospitals across North Carolina rallied in Raleigh on Thursday to demand the right to work in a safe environment while earning a decent wage.
They told an invited panel -- including five state legislators -- that staffing levels in the hospitals had been cut so low that they were often no longer able to provide the required levels of care and still protect themselves.
Some said they were often forced to work overtime or asked to work a double shift -- 16 hours straight -- and then come in the next day and do it again.
"We care about our patients and we don't want them to get hurt," said Burnett Banks, a health care technician at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. "We don't want to get hurt either."
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As the state plan to reform the mental health system has foundered, long-time workers said patients are increasingly violent and desperate.
"These patients have been getting more violent in the last five years because they aren't getting the treatment they need," said Bernice Lunsford, a nurse at John Umstead Hospital in Butner with 22 years on the job.
Many of the out-of-town workers arrived in passenger vans rented by the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, which organized the event. In a packed meeting room where the atmosphere seemed like cross between a labor protest and a tent revival, employees opposed a plan to close Dix and Umstead and send patients to the new $120 million Central Regional Hospital in Butner.
State employees said that when they called the office of Gov. Mike Easley to talk to someone about the move they were hung up on. A few who managed to meet last week with some of Easley's aides were told only that the administration would continue to monitor the situation.
The new hospital in Butner has design flaws that could be hazardous to patients. In addition, internal projections say the hospital will open with dire shortages of qualified staff.
Even if staffed to the full level planned, administrators expect to have fewer employees taking care of more patients.
With mass shortages, managers are often attempting to close the gap with temporary workers that are more expensive than state workers and sometimes less qualified. A nurse said about 40 percent of her colleagues at Dix are now temporary staff -- a ratio they expected to be even worse at Central Regional.
Nurses said that on two-hour tours of the new facility this week -- the only orientation to the new hospital they have received -- administrators told them that if they speak out publicly about the problems, they could lose their jobs. Several said that was a risk they were willing to take to follow their consciences.
"I walked in and immediately saw problems," said Diane Spotz, a nurse at Dix. "They had electrical outlets in the patient bathrooms. We have patients who like to stick things in those."
Kris Casey, a temporary nurse who has worked at Dix for a year, issued an even more direct warning to Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill, the co-chair of the legislative oversight committee on mental health.
"If you move us up there, people are going to die," Casey predicted. "I've seen a person hang themselves on a handrail. It doesn't take much."
Insko told the workers to put their concerns in writing.
"We need evidence, not opinions," she said. "I'm going to pass the information along so when we move it will be safe."
Rep. Deborah Ross of Wake County earned applause by telling the workers that in her view the move to Central Regional doesn't meet the minimum standards the legislature set out for the closure of Dix.
"If they open this hospital in its current condition it will be a violation," Ross said. "The legislators are in town Monday night. Go down and talk to them."