Western Montana Mental Health Center last Thursday laid off more than a dozen case managers and community-based rehabilitation aids, according to multiple employees who spoke with the Indy. Those same employees estimate that roughly 200 clients will be affected by the layoffs, some of whom rely on case managers to help them maintain medication schedules and attend doctor’s appointments.
“It’s the ones I have contact on a weekly basis with that I worry about the most,” says Lisa Leon, one of the center’s community-based rehab aides (CBRs) who received her termination packet Dec. 14. She adds that the layoffs are effective Jan. 2. Leon also serves as a shop steward for the case manager union on WMMHC’s Missoula campus, which formed in September in response to potential layoffs stemming from state cuts to Medicaid. She and fellow shop steward Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski say their first inkling of the imminency of the layoffs came last Wednesday night, when a Missoula colleague informed them by phone that WMMHC case managers in Kalispell had just been terminated.
A spokesperson for WMMHC told the Indy that outgoing CEO Jodi Daly was unavailable to confirm or comment on the layoffs Monday.
Word of the layoffs came less than two weeks after the union, with the help of Missoula Area Central Labor Council President Mark Anderlik, filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against WMMHC. The complaint claims that the organization refused to bargain with the union over how layoffs would be handled if they became necessary.
“We have bargaining scheduled for Jan. 2,” Nguyen-Wishneski says, “and there will be a federal mediator there because they have not been bargaining in good faith.”
The story shared with us by Leon and Nguyen-Wishneski over the weekend was echoed Monday morning by other case managers and CBRs picketing along Russell Street outside WMMHC’s administrative offices. As stated in a press release, the picket was organized to protest the organization’s “refusal to bargain in good faith over layoffs and working conditions.”
During the picket, Anderlik was critical of the WMMHC layoffs. Other mental health organizations haven’t fired their case managers in response to the state’s budget crisis, he said, but at WMMHC, “they laid off all but two of our bargaining unit.”
“We’re going to be filing a ton of [unfair labor practice complaints] over the next few weeks,” Anderlik said.
At this point, Leon and Nguyen-Wishneski believe the best case scenario for the Jan. 2 meeting is that case managers and CBRs are awarded severance packages—something the union has attempted to bargain for. In the meantime, both say they’re scrambling to help their clients find adequate services elsewhere, including at the Sunburst Community Service Foundation. Megan Bailey, a therapist in Sunburst’s Missoula office, confirms she’s been in touch with both WMMHC management and case managers about absorbing some of the clinic’s clients, and adds that Sunburst has no plans to lay off case managers in response to state cuts.
“We’ve got a tremendous clinical pool, and once we become oversaturated we hire somebody else,” Bailey says. “Our capacity meets need, and that’s how we’ve always operated.”
The situation is further complicated, Nguyen-Wishneski says, by the fact that as many as 10 WMMHC case managers have quit in the past three or four months, and their clients have been re-assigned to others at WMMHC. Some of those new clients she hasn’t even met yet.
“The hardest thing is all these new clients I’ve been assigned … having to call up somebody over the phone that I’ve never met, that I don’t know what their reaction might be, and saying, ‘My name is Cheryl. I’ve been assigned as your new case manager. However, I’ve been laid off. Can I take you to another agency?’”