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Governor signs labor peace bill for New Jersey behavioral health workers

By Mark McCullough ·
Governor signs labor peace bill for New Jersey behavioral health workers
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (Photo credit: New Jersey governor’s office)

Behavioral health workers across New Jersey are starting off the new year with a huge legislative victory that was years in the making.

After passing both the Assembly and State Senate without a single vote in opposition, Gov. Phil Murphy signed S2708, a critical labor peace bill, on Jan. 15.

“Our essential workers, who have continued to provide critical care for individuals throughout the pandemic, deserve the opportunity to access these benefits,” Murphy wrote. “And in the settings of mental health, behavioral health, and addiction services, where the state depends on contracts with reliable providers, labor harmony agreements can help protect the state’s proprietary interest in efficient delivery of services.”

The legislation requires employers with whom the state contracts through the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families for behavioral health and substance abuse services to enter into labor peace agreements. This ensures workers who want to form a union can do so without fear of harassment and intimidation.

Additionally, to help manage the significant health and safety risks faced by providers and their patients, this legislation will require licensed community-based organizations and providers that receive state funding to provide ready access to rapid COVID tests, supply adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and enact policies to keep the workforce as safe as possible.   

By giving behavioral health workers a voice in this process, New Jersey will be better equipped to allocate resources to fund services like substance abuse treatment, community mental health and homeless services. With a seat at the table, workers can improve care and better delivery of services that consumers and clients need. And the state will be better equipped to address these critical issues and provide the level of care that the people of New Jersey need and deserve.

Labor peace for the state’s behavioral health workers has been a top priority for AFSCME New Jersey (Council 63), District 1199J NUHHCE/AFSCME and AFSCME’s United We Heal campaign for many years.

“The reality is that you cannot fix the behavioral health crisis in New Jersey and provide better care for consumers and clients without giving the front-line workers who deliver those services a voice in how to accomplish it,” Susan Cleary, president of District 1199J, and Steven Tully, executive director for AFSCME New Jersey, said in a statement. “AFSCME members applaud and thank Gov. Murphy and our legislative leaders for working together, and with us, to pass this critical legislation that will help us meet the surging demand for quality behavioral health services.”

“Most importantly, the legislation will finally create career pathways for the thousands of dedicated workers who have seen compensation and protections stagnate, or even decline, while their workloads increased,” they continued. “By addressing the inequities that are at the root of the industry’s staffing crisis, giving these workers a protected voice and increasing funding transparency, we will build a behavioral health system to be proud of.” 

Marvin James, a residential counselor at SERV Behavioral Health System in Mercer County, said the new legislation will stop other behavioral health workers from having to endure what he and his co-workers endured when they filed for union representation with AFSCME in 2019. Even though they overwhelming won the election, SERV, which receives state funding, ran an aggressive and expensive anti-union campaign. SERV even refused to recognize the election results well into the start of the pandemic.

“Because of that we were left without a voice when COVID-19 hit,” James said.

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