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A Voice on the Job in Behavioral Health:
For Our Clients, Our Communities and Each Other

For Behavioral Health Professionals Across the Country, Being Part of a Strong Union Is Key.

Join Today

At a time when more people are seeking behavioral health services and communities across America are confronting the impact of addiction, the work of behavioral health professionals is more important than ever.

But the behavioral health profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Many providers face untenable caseloads, stagnant pay, unsafe working conditions and, on top of it, crushing student loan debt. This leads to high turnover among staff and poor outcomes for our clients.

One thing is clear: the behavioral health industry isn’t going to change unless we come together and advocate for improvements. Addressing our country’s huge need for mental and behavioral health services means supporting the professionals on the front lines of building healthier, stronger and more resilient communities.

AFSCME is the union for 50,000 professionals in the behavioral health industry in 29 states across the country, and more are joining every day. We are clinicians, caretakers, social workers, therapists, case managers, alcohol and drug counselors and more.

Advocating for worker safety

A few months ago, Jillian Johnsen’s phone rang in the middle of the night. It was a co-worker who had accidentally been poked with a used needle and was calling from the emergency room.

Johnsen is a housing case manager at Transition Projects in Portland, Oregon, where she and her coworkers help people experiencing homelessness. Many of the participants are struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, and it’s not uncommon to find used needles in the shelters run by the nonprofit.

“This happened because we didn’t have the proper gloves to protect the upper side of our hands. We didn’t have the proper safety gear,” Johnsen says. “But because we’ve built a strong union, we raised our voices to advocate for the right gear and the agency’s leadership listened to us.”

Their advocacy led to a meeting with management in which workers tried on different safety gear and chose what they considered best.

“Whatever the team picked is what management ordered,” Johnsen says. “We were all very excited and proud to see that we could make a difference, and that was even before contract negotiations!”

“Because we've built a
strong union,
we raised
our voices to advocate
for the right gear
and the agency’s
leadership
listened to us.”

Jillian Johnsen

Case Manager
Portland, Oregon

A voice on the job leads to better services

“Being part of a strong union means we can provide better
services to
the families
we serve."

“Being part of a strong union means we can provide better services to the families
we serve."

Tara Myers

Family Services Worker
Jersey City, NJ

Tara Myers, an assistant family service worker at the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, has walked a mile in her clients’ shoes. She is in a unique position to help keep children safe and reunite them with their parents because she once struggled with substance abuse and saw her children taken from her.

“The clients I deal with are me,” says Myers, who has now been clean and sober for 29 years. “I can relate to their life.”

Having navigated the system herself, as she puts it, Myers is proud to help others who are going through the same difficult time that she once did. But sharing that personal experience with them isn’t her only asset: belonging to a strong union is just as important.

“Being part of a strong union means having a voice on the job,” says Myers, who is also president of her AFSCME local. “It means we can advocate for us but also for the families we serve. It means we all get to help each other out, and it means we can deal with management and get them to see our point of view. Being part of a strong union means we can provide better services to the families we serve.”

Being part of the change

As soon as he found his life’s calling, Mike Yestramski wanted to help improve behavioral health services.

“Like a lot of people in the behavioral health field, I had my own experiences growing up with family and friends who struggled with behavioral health problems,” says Yestramski, a psychiatric social worker at Western State Hospital near Tacoma, Washington. “I saw a lot of good that can be done, but I also saw a lot of areas for improvement, and I wanted to be part of that improvement.”

It didn’t take him long to realize that high-quality services depend on professionals who have access to the right training, equipment, tools and other resources, and who feel safe in the workplace and have a voice on the job.

That’s what being part of a strong union is all about. Together, he and his co-workers have achieved positive changes in their workplace and the services they provide, including improved safety, better training, better evidence-based treatment models for their clients, living wages and more vacation time.

“Our union has definitely helped us move in a very positive direction from where we were to where we are now,” Yestramski says. “We have made a lot of strides.”

“Our union has definitely
helped us move in a very
positive direction
from
where we were to
where we
are now.”

Mike Yestramski

Family Service Worker
Tacoma, Washington

Healing others and each other

“We need support as workers so that we can support the clients
that we serve.

As healers, we

need healing, too.”

“We need support as workers so that we can support the clients
that we serve.
As healers, we
need healing, too.”

Crystal Gardner

Psychiatric Social Worker
Chicago, IL

You can’t heal a person while you’re hurting, says Crystal Gardner.

A residential case manager at UCAN Residential in Chicago, Gardner works with young people who “either have been seriously traumatized by others or have traumatized others by their behavior,” she says. Many suffer from the debilitating effects of a serious mental health condition.

She believes wholeheartedly in UCAN’s mission of helping troubled youth “become our future leaders.” But like behavioral health professionals across the country, Gardner and her coworkers face unnecessary obstacles that prevent them from better serving their clients. Overworked, underpaid, suffering burnout and high stress, they decided to do something about it.

They joined AFSCME.

“As behavioral health workers, we do a lot of hands-on work with very vulnerable populations, and it can be very overwhelming, very draining,” Gardner says. “We need support as workers so that we can support the clients that we serve. As healers, we need healing, too.”