Two employees of the state’s mental hospital in western Kansas told legislators Monday that staffing shortages have created dangerous conditions, and a top social services administrator acknowledged that many of their complaints are valid.
Kyle Nuckolls, a mental health technician at Larned State Hospital, and Lynette Lewis, a pharmacy technician, said employees routinely work from 12 to 16 hours a day for five or six days a week, and parts of the hospital still are not adequately staffed.
They said workers fear they'll be disciplined if they don’t work overtime and are forced to stay on the job if they are sick.
Nearly 240 positions at the hospital, or 26 percent, were vacant as of last week, according to the state Department for Aging and Disability Services. Interim Secretary Tim Keck said the department is pursuing several short-term initiatives to ease the strain on employees.
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Keck also said state will have to consider pay raises, and he later outlined $17 million in additional spending for the state’s two mental hospitals that included a pay raise for mental health technicians. Most of the money would be spent at Osawatomie State Hospital in eastern Kansas; Keck said working conditions are the bigger concern for Larned employees.
Lawmakers’ concerns about both hospitals intensified after the federal government in December decertified Osawatomie over the reported rape of an employee and other safety issues. Nuckolls and Lewis testified about Larned during a meeting of a joint House-Senate oversight committee on social services.
“This has been building up for a long time,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, told the two Larned employees. “It’s steadily getting worse and worse and worse.”
Lewis said the forced overtime at Larned makes working conditions there unacceptable, and Nuckolls said exhausted workers are more prone to mistakes – and fear they'll be fired for making them. He said many employees, including him, regularly fall asleep at the wheel on their drives home and feel they “are not treated like human beings.”
Both Nuckolls and Lewis are representatives at the Larned hospital of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union for government workers.
“It seems the fact that we are people has been forgotten,” Nuckolls said. “The fact that we have families and lives outside work isn’t even acknowledged.”
Keck later told the same committee that he’s bothered by such reports. He said the hospital needs “a change in culture” so that it becomes “a good place to work again.”
Staffing has been a persistent issue at both hospitals. Keck said he’s asking Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget staff to include his spending proposals in recommendations to lawmakers. The Legislature returns April 27 from its annual spring break to wrap up its business for the year.
Keck’s proposals include nearly $6 million to cover the federal funds lost through Osawatomie’s decertification, as well as nearly $1.3 million for consultants who are working on regaining certification.
At Larned, mental health technicians would see a 2.5 percent increase in their pay so that they would start at $13.95 an hour.
The Larned hospital’s last permanent superintendent, Tom Kinlen, resigned in March. Keck last week named Chris Mattingly, an Oklahoma City-area hospital management consultant, to run Larned for the next six months.
Keck said KDADS has for about a month allowed employees who are not direct-care workers to volunteer to work overtime in direct-care positions. Also, he said, KDADS is working with the Department of Corrections to have workers at a prison mental health center on the Larned hospital campus take overtime shifts at the hospital.
KDADS also earlier this month began transferring 60 prison inmates who were being treated at the state hospital back to the corrections facility there, so the hospital can shut down two units and free up their staff.