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Union Leader Responds To Job, Programming Cuts At Brattleboro Retreat

An overhead sign that says Brattleboro retreat looking into a grassy area with park benches at entrance.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
On Friday, the Brattleboro Retreat announced it will lay off 85 employees and cut four programs in the coming months. Its addiction treatment hub is among those slated to be cut.

Last Friday, the Brattleboro Retreat, the state's largest inpatient psychiatric facility, announced it was cutting 85 jobs in several programs as it deals with significant financial challenges.

Many of the nurses and mental health workers at the retreat are members of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Union, or UNAP, including some who are losing their jobs in this round of cuts.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Brattleboro Retreat union head Robert Smith, who leads the unit which covers mental health workers. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp:  So first, what was your reaction to the announcement of the layoffs and other cuts at the retreat last week?

Robert Smith:  Well, it wasn't really a surprise because we knew that the retreat had been in serious financial difficulty last year. And then when the coronavirus hit, things really went south.

Right. So it was not entirely a surprise to you that this happened.

No, we had been talking about some changes that might be made with the administration that would save money. And, you know, it was clear from those discussions that they were losing $800,000 to $1 million a month. No institute can function with those kinds of losses. So we were expecting layoffs

More from VPR: Brattleboro Retreat To Lay Off 85 Employees, Cut Four Programs

I understand some of the jobs that are being cut are union jobs. Do you know how many?

I think of the 85 or so total, you know, either 62 or 64 were union jobs.

And so do you have any recourse with the Retreat in terms of retaining those employees or any action around those job cuts?

Yeah. The other union president, Sy Creamer and I, we knew that the cuts were coming on Friday. So we made ourselves available and we talked with a lot of employees then. And we went back again on Monday, met with more. We're going down through, contacting everyone and trying to get their decisions as to what they're going to do. There is a severance package, but there are also over 20 open MHW positions - [those are] mental health worker positions - and I think about 16 RN positions that are now available. And so [of the affected] MHW's and RN's, a lot of them are just taking up new jobs.

More from VPR: New 10-Year Mental Health Plan Could Mean Changes For The Retreat

The Retreat's administration was mandated by the Legislature earlier this year, as a condition of receiving state funding, to improve communication with employees. And in a report to the state last month, the Retreat said that it's made its top administrators more available to staff and made efforts to be transparent with staff about its long-term sustainability plan. Do you think that the administration has done enough to improve communication with employees in the last few months?

We really don't. The administration has not met with any members of the union with concerns that we have about some of the working conditions. We're very concerned because if they're not going to be talking with us while they're making decisions that involve us, they're not involving us and getting our input on some of the decisions they're making. And it's very difficult for us to to function that way. It's very frustrating.

So some communication issues. But you also mentioned the frustration around some of the working conditions at the Retreat. Can you tell me more about that? I mean, what are the conditions there that you feel are unfair to employees?

For two-to-three years now we've had some real difficulties with some decisions that were being made.

Let me take you back to the summer of 2018. In June of 2018, the administration informed all the frontline workers that every person's schedule was going to change the next month, and it was extremely disruptive. And at that time, there began a mass exodus of employees from the retreat. That bleeding of nurses is what has caused a lot of the financial difficulties at the retreat, because they've been forced to bring in travel nurses and international nurses. And one travel nurse costs as much as two staff nurses.

More from VPR: ‘We’re Stretched’: Mental Health Providers On The Pandemic’s Toll

And so, with those scheduling issues, I mean, going forward. Is there a fix that you see that the Retreat could make, that would improve those conditions for employees and perhaps help the finanicial sustainability of the retreat?

We talked with them about, about several things - these changes, getting rid of all these outside programs and these school programs. They may make a difference, but I mean, they've got to make up $1 million a month. It's very difficult to see how the changes that they've made are going to put the Retreat on a financially sustainable path.

But I mean, the CEO of the retreat has saiddoubling down on inpatient psychiatric care and cutting some of these other programs will make the Retreat more focused on its core mission. I mean, do you see that as as a solution to making the Retreat sustainable in the long term?

I think it's a step in the right direction, but we're rather wary that it's going to produce the results that the CEO said.

Given these challenges at the Retreat, are employees, in your view, up to the task right now to provide the quality of care that the patients who are there need?

Yeah, I mean, the employees are really fantastic. It's almost kind of a calling to work in a psychiatric hospital because it can be very challenging. And we have the most challenging patients in the state. The staff are fantastic. Yeah, they're up to the challenge.

But there are things that make it difficult to stay working there. I mean, some of the floors now, we're supposed to get a half-hour lunch break and two, 15 minute breaks and a lot of the floors, the staff aren't getting breaks.

More from VPR: The Brattleboro Retreat’s Financial Woes: What It Means For Vermont’s Mental Health System

And just finally, I mean, what's your expectation for the future of the Retreat? Do you feel like we're going to be seeing further financial challenges in the near future that could lead to more job cuts? Or do you feel optimistic that things might improve?

I would hate to see more job cuts, but I don't know what to say to that. I'm not super optimistic that this is the answer to the problems. I do feel that one thing the Retreat needs to do is they need to really work at communication with their frontline workers. They need to be talking with us.

Disclosure: The Brattleboro Retreat is a VPR underwriter.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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