Amid labor actions, mental health workers see high vacancies, turnover

Several coworkers of Karen Parsons, a psychiatric social worker who works with teenagers and young adults in Santa Clara County, have had to take on roommates in order to live in the South Bay near work.

Others have left their jobs altogether, seeking private-sector employment where the pay is better.

The cost-of-living crisis in the Bay Area, Parsons said, has meant that her department has seen high levels of turnover.

“It just seems like when we fill a position that we find another one opening up,” Parsons said.

Parsons’s department is not alone. The union representing Santa Clara County government workers, SEIU Local 521, stated that 24 percent of mental health jobs were vacant as of October, nearly double the rate they cited for county workers as a whole.

The union has also cited vacancies and turnover rates in county jobs as evidence of workplace problems throughout the county. In an October flier stating the reasons behind a labor strike they launched, the union stated that one in seven budgeted positions were vacant.

The union has since entered into mediation with the county.

Santa Clara County acknowledged in a statement that it has had some turnover of mental health workers.

“There are multiple reasons why individual employees decide to seek other employment,” the county stated. “As you may know, the demand for behavioral health services has expanded across the Bay Area and the state, creating a more competitive environment with other options for employment.”

The statement added that the county continues to provide services to its clients.

“The Behavioral Health Services Department employs many staff who provide direct services and support to clients,” the statement reads. “In addition, many of the services offered to the community are provided by agencies who contract with the Behavioral Health Services Department. Our providers continue to deliver care and treatment to their clients.”

Both the statement and county mental health employees pointed in particular to turnover of mental health workers in the county jails.

According to two people who work in mental teams in county jails, Alen Yaghoubi and Charlene Mahabali, fallout following the death of Michael Tyree has particularly led to burnout among staff. Tyree was a mentally ill inmate who died in the Santa Clara County Main Jail from blunt force injuries that resulted in the convictions of three jail guards.

Mahabali said that Tyree’s death “shook the whole system.” Following Tyree’s death, jail and county officials promised to implement reforms and initiated widespread changes in county policies surrounding mental health in the jails.

Yaghoubi said that those changes caused a number of people to leave their jobs for other roles within the county.

“They’re like, ‘Well, if I’m going to, you know, have a completely different approach to what I used to, I might as well just go to a different department and start over there and not have to deal with all of these legal issues,” Yaghoubi said.

Santa Clara County pointed to “several changes in custody health,” including the recent adoption of electronic medical records, as reasons for turnover in county jails.

The Tyree incident also caused the county to expand its mental health services in the jails. After Tyree’s death, Santa Clara County decided to launch 12 “multi-disciplinary teams” of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, psychiatric nurses and substance use counselors to treat people with serious mental illnesses.

But Yaghoubi and Mahabali both said that the county has been unable to fill all of those positions. Yaghoubi said that he thinks the jail has never had more than five fully staffed multi-disciplinary teams since instituting the push.

“We don’t have the staffing, so those teams are depleting,” he said.

But, Yaghoubi added, people at the jail do team up “to deal with certain situations or to deal with certain teams that are becoming more problematic.”

In addition to stress following the death of Michael Tyree, Yaghoubi and Mahabali said that the environment at the jails can be difficult to work in, making it hard to retain and recruit mental health employees. Mahabali said that compared to people working in the private sector, county mental health employees deal with lower-income populations and with people who have more severe forms of mental illnesses.

“We’re assigning case loads that have mentally ill people with substance abuse history, and they’re homeless,” Mahabali said.

Yaghoubi said that he specifically wanted to help people with particularly severe forms of mental illness.

“I picked the population that’s very difficult to work with because a lot of times, you know, they need the most help,” he said.

But their mental health needs can mean that they are resistant and even hostile to receiving help.

“I’ve been threatened and cursed at so many times, it’s like the equivalent of saying ‘Hi’ to me at this point,” Yaghoubi said. “It doesn’t faze me at all.”

Still, both Yaghoubi and Mahabali said that they were proud of the work they do. But as supporters of the county’s strike, they said that they wanted more resources or more support from the county.

“I’m proud to work for the county,” Mahabali said. “You know, I’m proud to do what I do. I’m proud to be a mental health worker. But just right now, with everything going on, we want to be able to provide more resources for our population.”


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