BRATTLEBORO — A union representing Brattleboro Retreat employees has filed two unfair labor practice complaints against the mental health facility since early November, alleging its administration has repeatedly violated fundamental employee rights.
The United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP) Local 5086’s complaints to the National Labor Relations Board — filed Nov. 8 and Dec. 19 — say administrators withheld information from union officers, denied union members representation during investigative interviews and threatened two union officials’ employment.
The union serves 500 of the Retreat’s employees, ranging from nurses and mental health workers to social workers and pharmacists.
“We very, very rarely file unfair labor practice charges,” said Jack Callaci, the union’s representative through UNAP. “I’d say we have filed more unfair labor practices in the last year than I have filed in my career, everywhere.”
The union has filed six unfair labor practice complaints to the National Labor Relations Board in the past year, according to Callaci.
Retreat spokesman Jeff Kelliher sent a prepared statement to The Sentinel Wednesday morning noting that employees are the Retreat’s “most valuable asset.”
The statement did not specifically comment on the union’s allegations, and Kelliher declined to answer questions regarding them.
“The Retreat considers all personnel issues to be confidential, and that the grievance process is the appropriate mechanism for resolving differences between union staff and management,” Kelliher wrote in response to a list of questions Wednesday night.
Callaci said changes in the administration’s outlook on the union are needed for the disputes to stop.
“This administration blames everybody else for all their problems, and they are incapable of looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘What am I doing to make things worse? What can I do to make things better?,’ ” Callaci said.
The labor complaints come during a turbulent time for the Retreat, which serves about 5,400 people per year. Due to financial pressures, the Retreat, which also offers substance-use disorder services, recently announced it is examining options for the facility’s future, such as scaling back services.
According to the November complaint, provided to The Sentinel by the union, administrators threatened the employment of union Co-President Daniel Watson and Edward Dowd, the union’s grievance chairman, in June.
The same complaint also alleges Co-President Syiane Creamer was removed from several hospital committees on Sept. 5 due to her union affiliation.
Two other union members — Lenny Patterson and Austin Covillion — were discharged and put on administrative leave, respectively, because they wouldn’t participate in investigative interviews conducted by supervisors without union representation, the complaint claims.
Watson, as one of the union’s presidents, had scheduled a union membership meeting May 1, the same day as a management-run employee meeting, according to Callaci.
Callaci said this was accidental, but that Watson, a mental health worker at the Retreat, was accused by management of “orchestrating a boycott” of the employee meetings, and his employment was threatened.
Dowd — a registered nurse at the Retreat for more than three decades and a union member since its inception in the ‘90s — said he faced an employment ultimatum after asking management about what he deemed the wrongful termination of a union member.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, union stewards and officers are considered equal to management during grievance meetings and bargaining sessions.
“When a union steward is working within their role, they aren’t subordinate to management,” he said. “The reason for that is there is no other way a union would work; they’d be powerless.”
During the grievance process, a steward is allowed to discuss the case with management between meetings, sit in on investigative interviews with the employee and request information about the incident, according to Dowd and Callaci.
But after doing what he says was in his union position’s jurisdiction, Dowd received an email on June 20 from the Retreat’s Chief Nursing Officer Meghan Baston threatening his job.
“Consider this a verbal warning, Ed. If you continue to circumvent procedures prescribed in the union contract for addressing disputes about management decisions and interfere with various parties who are trying to do their jobs in the organization, the Retreat will take action both in disciplinary action for you as well as filing [an unfair labor practice complaint] for interfering with management’s rights,” the email states. “Continuing to overstep this boundary will compromise your continued employment.”
Kelliher declined to comment on this email, and said Baston was unavailable for comment Thursday. Baston did not respond to a separate email sent that day by The Sentinel.
“Managers, senior leaders, and non-union employees do not make specific or unilateral decisions about whether or not to talk to the press regarding hospital matters. They follow our media policy, which is clear that we do not share our views on confidential personnel matters with the media,” Kelliher said in an email after being informed by a reporter that Baston had been contacted directly.
In the Dec. 19 filing, the union alleges the Retreat’s administration refused to provide it information it had requested to represent a disciplined employee.
On to arbitration
With no resolution between the union and administration, the complaints were sent to arbitration — the use of a third party to settle a dispute.
The Nov. 8 filing was sent Nov. 12, and the Dec. 19 filing was sent about two weeks ago, Callaci said. Both cases are still pending, he added.
Going to arbitration has become routine, Callaci said, costing both the Retreat and union thousands of dollars in legal fees each time.
He added that for decades, many grievances had been resolved before the official procedure had even begun. But in recent years, he said, the process has gotten ugly.
“The last year, I’ve done nine [arbitrations]. I haven’t done that many ever. Before this stretch of nonsense, I think I had done three arbitrations over 18 years,” Callaci said.
“There’s no interest in the union to have all this going on. I don’t get paid by the hour or [for] arbitration. The local union has to pay for part of it, so there’s no advantage here,” he added.
Aside from the arbitration fees, Dowd said the Retreat has also been hiring travel nurses to fill vacancies from employees being fired or quitting to work elsewhere.
“... there’s not a line of people lining up to work there. When they lose a person, they can’t replace them,” he said.
Kelliher confirmed the Retreat has turned to travel nurses to fill staffing gaps due to a “critical shortage of nurses and physicians.”
“This is a nationwide challenge that is not unique to the Retreat,” he said in an email Wednesday night. “While the cost for a travel nurse is about twice the cost of a staff nurse, that money is paid directly to contract agencies as a fee. The amount each travel nurse is actually paid is between the agency and the nurse.”
According to Indeed, a travel nurse in Brattleboro makes about $1,600 per week, or about $40 an hour.
Meanwhile, given the Retreat’s financial problems, Dowd said union members are irritated the Retreat has chosen to spend resources on union disputes that could go toward saving its mental health services.
“They have squandered a lot of resources fighting with union members and the union,” he said. “It’s never been like this.”
Callaci added the recent string of allegations are tied directly to the current administration. Without change, he and Dowd are worried about the Retreat’s future.
“We have dealt with many different labor lawyers, many different CEOs, HR executives, nursing executives, and it’s only this team that’s had this kind of problem,” Callaci said. “We’ve been the same; I’ve been the representative for 30 years. The variable here is not us.”