A typical work day is supposed to last about eight hours, but what if you’re asked to stay and work another eight hours? Thanks to mandatory overtime, this can happen to nurses and psychiatric technicians at Napa State Hospital.
The practice of mandatory overtime has been used at medical facilities for years. It was outlawed in the private sector in 2001, but not at state medical facilities, prompting picketing Thursday by employees at Napa State Hospital.
Picketers wearing purple colors of the hospital’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) received encouragement from passing motorists who beeped their horns and called out in support.
Outsiders really don’t know know how much this issue is affecting workers and patients, said Sheri Hinkle, a health service specialist at Napa State, who is also the senior union steward.
“They don’t know we’re working fatigued, we’re working tired, we can’t go home to take care of our parents, we can’t take care of our children – we can barely take care of ourselves,” Hinkle said.
Hinkle said that nurses, psychiatric technicians and psychiatric technician assistants can all be mandated to work up to 16 hours a day every other day up to two times a week. That means it is possible for a nurse or technician to work for 8 hours on Monday, 16 hours on Tuesday, 8 on Wednesday, 16 on Thursday and 8 on Friday.
Because of this schedule, Hinkle said, people are working while tired, making more medication errors, are more stressed and their whole lives become disrupted.
Employees are also faced with never knowing when they will be mandated, Hinkle said. This realization has made more and more people volunteer to work overtime in an effort to control how their lives are disrupted.
“Say, (my) daughter is graduating Friday and you know you might get mandated, so I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to volunteer on Wednesday or Thursday,” she said.
This practice makes it look like mandatory overtime is decreasing, but it hasn’t, Hinkle said.
Mandatory OT can be required despite the hardship on the employee, Hinkle said. The reason an employee can’t stay doesn’t matter – it can be a scheduling conflict with college classes, lack of a babysitter, appointments or even weddings and graduations.
“The hospital don’t really care that you’re going to school – when you’re mandated, you’re mandated,” she said.
Hinkle said she began working at the hospital in the 1980s and that the problem, which hardly existed then, has gotten progressively worse over the years.
“I don’t know why the Department of State Hospitals has done this as a form of staffing, but we know it has to stop,” Hinkle said.
According to a report by the California Little Hoover Commission, state-employed nurses and psychiatric technicians worked 3.75 million hours in overtime and the state paid $179 million in overtime pay during the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
The commission is an independent oversight agency that investigates state government operations and promotes efficiency, economy and improved service.
The commission found that excessive overtime is not safe for staff or patients and that it makes it difficult for state facilities to attract and retain quality staff. And the issue isn’t just within the Department of State Hospitals, but it also affects the California Correctional Health Services, the Department of Developmental Services and the California Department of Veterans Affairs, the commission said.
According to the commission’s report, the Department of State Hospitals said it was saving money by using overtime instead of hiring more employees.
The department said that there would be an additional cost of $7,100 for each additional psychiatric technician, $11,829 for each additional registered nurse and $4,999 for each additional licensed vocational nurse, the commission said.
The commission recommended that the figures provided by the Department of State Hospitals be analyzed to see if there is a connection between long work hours, workplace injuries and workers compensation costs.
Ken Paglia, representative for the Department of State Hospitals, said that the department has been reviewing the use of mandatory overtime in its hospitals to determine how to reduce it and is conducting a study to evaluate staffing levels in its hospitals.
“Providing a safe and optimal work environment is a top priority,” Paglia said, but that the department must also ensure it provides adequate staffing to meet patient care needs on a 24/7 basis.
“At times, increased staffing is necessary to improve safety on a unit when a patient’s acuity increases and they become a danger to themselves or others,” he said. “The department balances this need with the need to have staff work mandatory overtime.”
He said that there are many factors that contribute to the department’s use of mandatory overtime, including staffing ratios, fluctuations in patient acuity, staff illness and injuries, and vacancies.
Longtime Napa State Hospital employee Michael Jarschke knows that resources are tight, but still thinks change can happen.
Jarschke, a psychiatric technician and chapter president of the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians (CAPT) at the hospital, joined in Thursday’s rally.
He’s been at the hospital since 1972.
Jarschke became a technician because he had a talent for “talking people down” and knew he could use that talent to help people. He’s passionate about what he does, he said, but after years of working under such duress, he said that he dreads going to work.
“I wake up and I’m fine for just a few seconds and then I realize ‘Oh’ and I actually feel myself tense up,” he said. Throughout the years, he said that clients have gotten more dangerous and the limited resources and staffing issues don’t help the matter.
Jarschke said employees are concerned about their safety. “The assaults can be very brutal,” he said. And when psychiatric technicians are stressed, overworked and tired, they’re more vulnerable to these attacks since they are less alert, he said.
“It does affect families, believe me,” Jarschke said. “I raised my kids doing mandatory overtimes back to back and it was very difficult.”
Jarschke said that when he told his 19-year-old son that they were going to begin working on getting rid of mandatory overtime, his son started to tear up, remembering what it was like growing up.
When he came home for dinner at night, his son would ask him if he had to go back, Jarschke said. “It really did affect my family.”