Counseling Center Employees Take Grievances to Island Public

By MANDY LOCKE

Island Counseling Center employees, locked in a labor dispute at Martha's Vineyard Community Services, will take their grievances to the public Monday night in a forum at the Oak Bluffs School library.

"Employees of Martha's Vineyard Community Services invite the community and all those interested in health care issues on the Island to attend a forum on their efforts to win a stronger voice, more respect and living wages," says an advertisement for the forum in today's Gazette.

ICC petitioners to form a union said they invited the Community Services board of directors and executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch to the public forum. But in a statement released Wednesday, Mr. Robinson-Lynch said he and the board will not attend Monday night's discussion.

"We have no intention of attending such a one-sided ‘forum.' We would consider attending only if the rules were the same for both sides. If the union produced a signed statement from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) making it clear that the same rules applied to union statements as to agency statements, we would reconsider our involvement in a true open forum," said Mr. Robinson-Lynch.

Mr. Robinson-Lynch said the Community Services administration is limited by the NLRB in communications with Community Services employees and the public.

"For example, the union can make all sorts of promises while the agency legally cannot make any promises at all," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.

Nineteen employees from the Island Counseling Center filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board March 15 to form a bargaining unit with the Hospital Workers Union, local 767 of the Service Employees International Union. Community Services administration argued that employees from all five programs of the agency should be allowed to vote. After four days of NLRB hearings, management and union representatives agreed to extend voting rights to all professional employees, which include a number of professionals from both the Island Counseling Center and Visiting Nurse Service. The NLRB has yet to decide whether ICC clinical supervisors and graduate interns will be allowed to vote to form a union in a June election.

Language remained sharp this week, as management and ICC petitioners hardened positions in the labor dispute.

From the onset, petitioners cited low wages, concern for consistent client care and a need for an articulated pay scale as reasons to unionize.

The impetus for the current labor dispute surfaced two years ago during an ICC staff retreat. Employees formed a salary committee to study the agency's compensation for mental health employees compared to similar agencies across the state. They also surveyed ICC staff to learn what each employee earned.

"There was no rhyme or reason for wages. People with 18 years more experience than me in the same type of field earned 50 cents more an hour," said ICC petitioner Amy Lilavois.

"We found there was no equality of distribution. Staff was making at the lower end of the spectrum; management was making at the higher end," ICC employee Jane Dreeben said, explaining that the committee requested forms the agency is required to file with the state attorney general. Nonprofit corporations are required to file with the attorney general about details of the agency's budget and the salaries of the top five ranking managers.

ICC petitioners argue that staff within the counseling program do not earn a living wage. The employees explain that they are not paid for hours not directly spent with clients. Employees earn 60 per cent of their full hourly rate when working on other projects. They earn no wages for time required to file paperwork. All ICC staff receives three weeks paid vacation, 12 sick days and insurance benefits. Staff must contribute to health insurance payments. For example, Ms. Dreeben said, a part-time employee taking a family health insurance plan will pay $400 a month.

Earnings and expenditures do not match up, petitioners argue.

"We're at the low end of the pay scale, and the Vineyard's at the high end of the cost of living," said ICC employee Heidi Spruce, who said she can barely juggle rent, car payments and other living expenses on her $550 weekly paycheck.

Petitioners said that management did not respond adequately to their compensation concerns.

"We've been told over and over again the agency could not afford to pay a living wage," Ms. Dreeben said.

The administration said it commissioned a compensation review aimed to compare the wages of Community Service employees with employees at peer institutions across the state.

"The fact is that for many months, completely unrelated to this union activity, an outside professional compensation consultant, David J. Wudyka of Westminster Associates, has been reviewing the agency's compensation levels. In fact, in July of last year, Mr. Wudyka worked closely with the MVCS board of directors on setting the executive director's pay," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.

The overall compensation review is not yet complete, but the administration told staff this week in a memorandum dated April 22 that the study would be released "shortly."

Mr. Wudyka said he has completed the section devoted to wages for top management at Community Services.

"The management salaries at MVCS are very comparable with labor market data. In fact, for example, Ned Robinson-Lynch's salary is close to the mid-point for salaries paid for comparable positions at other nonprofit agencies in Massachusetts," Mr. Wudyka said.

But ICC petitioners said they feel there is a much greater disparity between management's comparable wages and that of counselors in ICC.

"It's all about how an agency prioritizes resources," Ms. Dreeben said.

"You don't build a new facility if you can't pay employees a living wage," ICC petitioner Jane Cleare added, referring to Community Services' plans to build a new campus because of space constraints.

Beyond addressing equitable wages, several petitioners also said they believe a union will better define working relationships between management and staff.

"Disciplinary action is arbitrary. There's no set process for discipline. The process becomes clarified with a union," Ms. Cleare said.

"Right now, it's an archaic form of management. It's a ‘my way or the highway' approach," ICC employee Rob Doyle said.

"You always get the sense that there's someone else ready to take your place if you leave," Ms. Spruce said.

Many of the petitioners agreed that staff devotion and the flexible approach to mental health entice them to remain with ICC despite their grievances.

"I've never worked with a group of people more clinically dedicated. That hasn't gotten lost. I don't think client care has been compromised. But [management] needs to take as good a care of us as we do our clients," Ms. Dreeben said.

"It's rewarding to work with people who can't afford private care," Ms. Spruce added.