SEIU 1199NE delegates attempt to enter state offices in Hartford Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Union delegates were stopped at the door of state offices in Hartford Tuesday as they attempted to deliver a letter calling on the commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services to fill vacant positions in her agency.

Members of SEIU 1199NE gathered on the sidewalk outside the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and told reporters that staffing shortages at state-run facilities like Blue Hills Hospital and Connecticut Valley Hospital have resulted in providers turning away clients in need.

They planned to hand-deliver a letter calling for 400 new hires by August to Commissioner Nancy Navarretta, but state police barred their entry and a small contingent of executive branch managers including Navarretta’s chief of staff came to collect the letter. They also listened patiently to the delegate’s concerns.

“Drugs and alcohol are at an all-time high and individuals in these communities are losing their lives, losing their families, losing their jobs because we can’t provide services for them,” Eugene Morton, a lead mental health worker at Blue Hills Hospital, told the officials.

Morton, who has worked at the facility for more than 18 years, told reporters that many of his colleagues had recently retired amid a surge of departures driven by changes in state employee benefits that incentivized retirement before July 1 for those who were eligible. 

DMHAS is one of several state agencies with significant vacancies and had more than 800 open positions as of June 30, according to a recent report. Morton said that understaffing has led to fewer beds available for people in crisis. 

Eugene Morton, a lead mental health worker at Blue Hills Hospital Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“You’re at your lowest point and you’re saying ‘I need help — I’m coming to you for help,’ and we’re saying we can’t help you because we don’t have enough employees, we’re not opening our beds back up,” Morton said. “I’ve personally witnessed individuals from the Hartford community being turned away in scores… It’s heart wrenching.”

In an email, Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for the Administrative Services Department and the governor’s office, said the state has been actively recruiting to fill state vacancies. She encouraged applicants to visit the state’s recruiting site. 

“As a shortage of workers persists across most sectors in the U.S. economy, the health care industry has been especially hit hard,” Anderson said. “This situation extends to the State of Connecticut, but we continue to maintain our highest staff count in the executive branch since 2016. Since 2019, DMHAS has hired for over 800 positions with competitive salaries and benefits based on the recent [State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition] agreement, as well as flexible working conditions, all of which help Connecticut compete with high paying private sector jobs.”

The union members who demonstrated Tuesday acknowledged it can be difficult to fill positions but said they would like to see the state post job openings for 400 vacant DMHAS positions by August. 

Tamika James, a lead forensic treatment specialist at Whiting Forensic Hospital Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Some said the current staffing levels had made their jobs unsafe. Tamika James, a lead forensic treatment specialist at Whiting Forensic Hospital, said that short staffing had contributed to an increase in assaults on staff and patients at the state’s high-security psychiatric hospital. 

“As hazardous duty state workers we get told that we signed up for this kind of thing but it’s happening more frequently and our cries are being ignored,” James said. “We did not sign up for dangerously low staffing levels. The patients do not deserve dangerously low staffing levels.”