Behavioral Health Workers at Legacy’s Unity Center File for Union Recognition

Workers are advocating for better staffing ratios, which they say will improve patient care.

Share this article!

Fifty-seven employees at Legacy Health’s Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board this week , according to a press release from the Oregon Nurses Association. Per the release, the group includes crisis intervention specialists, counselors, therapists, and social workers.

Unity, which is Portland’s only psychiatric emergency hospital, opened in 2017, and in its short history has struggled with a host of problems, including complaints related to the safety of its patients and staff as well as community members.

In March of this year, a woman sued Unity for $4 million in behavioral damages, alleging that in August 2022 a man came up behind her on the sidewalk outside the hospital and attacked her with a 35-pound rock. The alleged assailant had recently been released from the hospital.

In 2020, federal regulators reprimanded Unity for a host of violations, including failure to protect patients, understaffing, patient escapes and uses of handcuffs and restraints on patients.  

According to ONA, staffing issues — including staff turnover and the ratio of care workers to patients — have been a major impetus for Unity’s union drive.

“We’re experiencing a brain drain. Tenured clinicians who’ve acquired the comprehensive system knowledge and skill set find better working conditions elsewhere rather than stay at Unity. Our efforts to partner with leadership and resolve this problem have been ignored for too long,” Raffi Serafino, a social worker at Unity Center, said in the press release.Unionizing has become our only option to bargain for an appropriate intervention to fix our staffing challenges and, by extension, save lives,” 

“It’s not a secret that Unity has struggled,” Kevin Mealy, communications manager for the ONA, wrote in an email to Oregon Business. “Joining ONA gives the people who care for patients a real voice to improve patients’ care. It empowers clinicians to negotiate for safe staffing levels, patient care improvements and better working conditions. That means shorter wait times, a safer workplace, and higher quality care for patients,” writes Mealy.

The NLRB is expected to schedule a union election in the coming weeks.

A statement from Legacy Health confirmed it had received the petition for representation from the Oregon Nurses Association on behalf of the group.

“We respect our staff members’ rights to determine union representation through a secret ballot election to be held by the National Labor Relations Board, and we look forward to sharing additional information when we can,” wrote Legacy.

When nurses at Unity voted to unionize in 2019, Legacy appealed the vote to the NLRB, claiming Unity was part of a broader three-hospital facility and required a vote of all three facilities’ nurses. Legacy’s appeal was ultimately unsuccessful.

The Legacy spokesperson declined to say whether the hospital system  would appeal the current union vote. 

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here

Latest from Sander Gusinow