Essay: Sutter’s treatment of its frontline mental health workers is unacceptable

By Katie Valenzuela 

When we think of mental health providers, someone like Kenisha Campbell probably doesn’t come to mind, but she and her colleagues play a critical role in helping people get through the worst days of their lives.

Born and raised in Sacramento, Campbell isn’t a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. She’s a patient care support specialist at Sutter’s Center for Psychiatry, our region’s only non-profit psychiatric hospital.

And the appropriate question to ask Campbell isn’t what she does at the hospital, it’s what doesn’t she do.

In the course of a standard 8-hour shift, Campbell takes vital signs, performs urinalysis, helps patients bathe and brush their teeth, escorts them around the facility and steps in physically when a patient is a threat to themselves or others.

That might seem like a lot, but the reality is that Sutter’s lone psychiatric hospital in Sacramento is so understaffed — and many of its workers are so underpaid – that Campbell and her colleagues often find themselves working double shifts. And nighttime at the hospital, means checking on multiple patients as often as every five minutes from dusk till dawn.

I know Campbell and her coworkers because last month I stood with them when they held a three-day strike. And I know how badly Sutter treats them because I also stood with them when they held a one-day strike in December — their first-ever work stoppage.

Sutter’s response was to lock out Campell and her fellow patient care support specialists — the lowest-paid caregivers at the hospital — for two additional days.

Campbell has worked at the hospital for over four years. But she doesn’t make $25 per hour. Her coworker, Ruby Locke, a patient care support specialist at the hospital for 21 years, told Capitol Public Radio that workers are fighting to ensure all of them can at least make $26 per hour.

“I’m almost ashamed to tell people how much money I make and I’ve been with Sutter for this long,” Locke told the station. “I feel like my work is not appreciated and paid fairly.”

Workers at Sutter 73-bed psychiatric hospital, including social workers, psychologists, housekeepers and kitchen staff, formed a union in 2021 to address low pay and have more say in patient care. Sutter has tried to punish them for it ever since.

Instead of providing fair wages, Sutter eliminated the workers’ annual cost-of-living raises and offered wage increases that paled in comparison to rising rate of inflation. Instead of giving its social workers and psychologists a bigger say in patient care, Sutter is proposing to scrap its free health insurance plan and make workers pay thousands of dollars more per year for their own health care.

Sutter reported a combined $477 million operating profit in 2021 and 2022, but its effort to force workers to pay more for their health coverage extends beyond the psychiatric hospital. The company is demanding that its hospice workers in Sacramento, who unionized last year, also agree to give up their free health insurance and allow Sutter the right to charge them progressively more for their health care in the years ahead.

It’s easy to think of Sutter as just a giant hospital chain, but the reality is that so many of us depend on it for a lot more than a surgery or an ER visit. Sutter’s psychiatric hospital serves children and adults, and it receives millions in county funds.

We all have a stake in Sutter mental health professionals having a voice in the care they provide patients who having psychiatric emergencies; Sutter hospice workers having the time they need to bring comfort to families; and workers like Kenisha Campbell being able to help support her family and keep renting a home in her hometown without having to work double shift after double shift.

Sutter is financially strong. In order to provide better patient care, its frontline workers should be too.

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