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New Jersey behavioral health workers ratify first contract with SERV after years of standing united

Kahyl Hedgepeth, a residential counselor, votes to ratify his first contract.” Photo by AFSCME Staff.
New Jersey behavioral health workers ratify first contract with SERV after years of standing united
By Mark McCullough ·

After a nearly three-year battle to secure their voice on the job, the residential counselors and maintenance workers at SERV Centers of New Jersey in Mercer County voted unanimously to ratify their first contract.

These front-line workers, who provide the critical mental, addiction and behavioral services their communities desperately need, stood strong against years of SERV’s efforts to deny them their union rights and won a contract that will improve working conditions, staffing and consumer care.

"This is a monumental moment and a historical moment for behavioral health workers like us across New Jersey,” said Joshua Rogers, a residential counselor. “After years of my co-workers and I being subjected to low wages and other not so favorable practices, this contract will hold SERV accountable and make real positive change."

Highlights from the new three-year contract between SERV and AFSCME New Jersey Council 63 include improvements to scheduling and overtime protections, protections against firings without cause, seniority rights and allowing workers to use the personal time they earn, which hasn’t always been the case.

In an industry that suffers from high turnover due to crippling low pay, these workers secured a combined 18.5% pay increase since bargaining began, with 8.5% in contractual increases and a 10% raise retroactive to 2021 that workers won after filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

“The more management resisted us, the more we knew we were doing the right thing to get this voice on the job, no matter how long it took,” said Roosevelt Day, a residential counselor. “You really find out what is important in this job and why you do this work. For us, we do this work to better our communities, to help those who are struggling and to provide for our own families. And we are showing that if you believe in yourself, if you stand up for yourself and you stay united, you can succeed.”  

After voting overwhelmingly to have a union voice in 2019, SERV management continued their campaign to intimidate, discriminate against and bully their workers. Failing to overturn the election through an NLRB challenge, SERV hired the largest anti-union law firm in the country to try to prevent these workers from organizing.

But the workers stuck it out and prevailed, while SERV’s actions were so egregious they were held up as a reprehensible example when a state law was passed to empower workers against union-busting and to ensure vital state-funded behavioral health services are not disrupted.

The unity and perseverance of AFSCME SERV Mercer County workers also benefited nonunion workers at SERV locations throughout the state, with the company announcing its first company-wide raises in years in response to the union’s campaign.

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