Raleigh, N.C. — Workers with the state Department of Health and Human Services rallied Thursday to speak out against large raises for agency managers, arguing that their wages have essentially been frozen for years.
About 30 mental health workers and their allies protested what they say are unsafe and unfair working conditions in state mental health facilities. The protest was organized by Local 150 of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, the state public-service workers union.
Protesters said state mental health facilities are dangerously understaffed after years of budget cuts. Also, workers haven't had a significant raise since 2008, and four out of five are stuck at the bottom of their pay scale, meaning many have to work two jobs to make ends meet.
Larsene Taylor, a health care technician at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, said she's angry that DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos has handed out big raises and contracts to friends and political appointees while workers have gotten nothing.
"I'm a 21-year, six-month state employee of North Carolina. You're going to bring in somebody with two years – no experience – and get them up to $82,000. ... It's not fair to the working people."
Wos has been publicly criticized in recent months after two former campaign aides to Gov. Pat McCrory were given high-paid jobs at DHHS. She also hired an executive at her husband's company as a consultant and provided her chief of staff a $37,000 buyout even though he left after only one month on the job.
High turnover and low wages also affect the patients who depend on state workers for their care, Taylor said.
"When you have underpaid, overworked, exhausted, poorly trained employees of facilities, that’s going to impact the quality of care that patients get," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina.
The protesters delivered a letter to Wos' office, requesting a meeting with her to discuss their concerns. They sent her a similar letter last month and have also called several times, Taylor said.
“These are the people who do the work with the patients. We do not pay them a living wage. We do not provide the training that they need in order to handle very difficult situations," said state Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who took part in the rally.
“I speak not only on behalf of the workers, but on behalf of the patients they take care of," Insko said. "The workers need adequate training, they need enough staff there that they’re not put into dangerous situations, and they need a living wage.”
Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne, also participated in the rally.