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Brien Center Workers Picket For Higher Wages

Jim Levulis

Healthcare workers at the Berkshire County-based Brien Center are picketing, seeking higher wages.A rotating cast of about a dozen workers from The Brien Center, a nonprofit mental health and substance abuse agency, carried signs and chanted outside the Pittsfield offices Monday morning. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 509, they are seeking a new contract with higher wages. The previous one-year contract ended at the end of 2014. Maryann Harris says she has been an outreach worker at the Brien Center for 32 years.

“Wages don’t go up here at all,” Harris said.

“Thirty-two years ago what wage did you start at?” I asked.

“Probably nine dollars [an hour] and now I’m at $13,” Harris said.

The union represents about 350 direct care and human services staff at the Brien Center, which employees 450 people throughout Berkshire County. With median wages about $13 an hour, the union has proposed a five percent annual increase. Along with other contract changes, Brien’s CEO Christine MacBeth says the offer is “financially unsustainable” for the agency, costing an additional $3 million over the next three years. She says the agency has a $21 million annual budget, with average healthcare wages around $16 an hour.

“Our starting wages for staff are comparable to other agencies of this size that provide similar services in the same area and have a similar budget,” said MacBeth.

SEIU Local 509 says workers’ health insurance costs have also increased as much as 35 percent over the last year. MacBeth says insurance costs did go up like at most other places. She adds the Brien Center offered a different plan option, which not many people utilized.

Scott Levesque has been an outreach worker with the Brien Center for three years. He says current wages are causing high turnover among workers, negatively impacting continuity of care, especially as the region struggles with the surge in opioid use.

“As an employee has a reputation so does an agency,” Levesque said. “The Brien Center has gotten a reputation of low pay, not a good place and that’s affecting our ability to recruit people.”

MacBeth says the Brien Center’s turnover rate and recruitment are comparable with similar agencies in the region. With negotiations starting in September, The Brien Center has offered a one-year contract with a 1.5 percent wage increase and what it calls a productivity incentive plan.

“It’s not overtime, but if they bill over a certain number of hours they get additional monies in their salary,” MacBeth explained. “Again not dissimilar to what happens at other agencies that provide quote billable services.”

Adding that a three-year contract is ideal, MacBeth says the agency is proposing a one-year pact because it believes it may be in a stronger position this fall to address employee concerns. One reason for that belief: updated state contracts, which begin July 1.

“If there are increases in the contracts then those would likely to go to employees,” she said. “That’s just one example.”

Members of SEIU Local 509 sent a letter to MacBeth in December saying the proposal would increase “productivity requirements” and calling the offer unacceptable. Hoping the pickets will change the Brien Center’s position, Levesque says the union is unsure of the next step, which could end up in a strike.

“I’d like them to start focusing on the people and actually putting the resources there and let the other things fall into place afterwards,” Levesque said. “Because I think the most important is the folks that are doing the work and the community that they’re impacting.”

MacBeth says it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase pay higher than 1.5 percent at this point.

“I will remain hopeful that we can resolve our differences before it gets to a strike,” MacBeth said. “Bottom line, first and foremost, we need to be sure that we continue to keep those that we serve safe.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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