Workers at mental health facilities in area to lose jobs

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Even if the legislature restores a $4 million cut from the Department of Mental Health's budget, at least 72 department workers statewide -- including 10 in Southeast Missouri -- will lose their jobs this summer.

Dozens of mental health workers belonging to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union rallied in the Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to rethink planned cuts for the department in order to avoid the layoffs that are slated to take effect June 15.

However, Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Jeanne Henry said the decision on this round of layoffs is final.

"It is written in stone, as far as I know," Henry said.

Additional layoffs are possible, depending on how the budget situation unfolds in the coming weeks, Henry said.

In March, the department sent notices to 114 workers ranging from senior psychiatrists to typists informing them their jobs would be eliminated. The affected positions range in pay from $18,000 to $140,000 a year.

However, 42 of those who received letters have "bumping rights," meaning they can move to other, often lower paying jobs, in the department. Some of those people will move into positions that are vacant, while others will take jobs from those with less seniority.

Henry said it isn't yet clear exactly how many department employees will be let go.

10 layoffs in area

Ten employees at three Southeast Missouri facilities received layoff notices. The Poplar Bluff Regional Center and the Southeast Missouri Residential Services Center, also in Poplar Bluff, will lose three jobs each. The Sikeston Regional Center will lose four. The Cottonwood Residential Treatment Center in Cape Girardeau thus far has been spared job cuts.

The Sikeston layoffs eliminate the jobs of all four of the facility's behavioral intervention technicians. Those workers are trained in calming people with behavioral problems and preventing potentially volatile situations from escalating.

Two of those workers -- Walter Bowden and James Wells -- spoke at the employees' rally.

Wells, a 14-year department veteran, said the Sikeston center's clients are the ones who will suffer as a result of the job cuts.

"With us gone, there won't be any crisis intervention," Wells said. "We can prevent difficult behavior from becoming dangerous."

Instead, Wells said, law enforcement will have to be called for incidents involving those with behavior problems. Wells said most police lack the training to properly handle situations involving such people.

"This will have an effect on our clients and their families," said Bowden, who has been with mental health department for 25 years. "They rely on us to come in and defuse situations they don't know how to deal with."

Bowden said behavioral intervention also involves preventing problems before they occur.

His impending layoff means Bowden will fall 2 1/2 years short of qualifying for full state retirement benefits. He also said he has been told he will not be compensated for back overtime.

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