After Unionizing, Mental Health Workers Call Out Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss

by William Skink

Last month, amidst the anxiety and uncertainty of Montana’s budget crisis, case managers at Western Montana Mental Health Center chose to unionize:

On Sept. 20, case managers at the Western Montana Mental Health Center voted to unionize, a development that shop steward and six-year WMMHC case manager Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski attributes largely to fear over the impacts of state budget cuts. Nguyen-Wishneski says case managers first got together in a state of shared shock mid-summer to discuss their options, after they were informed of impending layoffs in their department. She adds that the new union also includes community rehabilitation aides, who frequently work in tandem with case managers for high-need clients.

“Pay was going to go down, workloads were going to go up, and that’s what was presented to us,” Nguyen-Wishneski says of the explanation she and other case managers were given for how WMMHC would absorb a 37-percent cut to Medicaid reimbursement for case management.

Case managers already have an incredibly difficult job. It’s also an incredibly important job. Good case managers work to keep their clients stable and out of costly institutions, like Warm Springs and County Detention. With homelessness on the rise, and no clear path out of the jail overcrowding crisis, case managers are a critical resource that need to be supported by this community and it’s political leadership.

That support was not happening. This was made perfectly clear in an op-ed penned by Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski and Lisa Leon. They called out Jean Curtiss specifically because she is the president of the board of directors of the Western Montana Mental Health Center. Here is a good portion of their complaint:

We want to be treated with respect and dignity in our places of employment. That is why we voted on Sept. 20 to form a mental health workers’ union. We have two goals that go hand in hand: the just and compassionate treatment of our clients, and the just and compassionate treatment of mental health employees.

On several occasions the mental health workers of Unite Here Local 23 have requested an audience with Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who also serves as president of the board of directors of the Western Montana Mental Health Center. On every occasion she has refused, with a resounding “no” to democratic process. Do not elected officials represent the working class? We have been led to question if Curtiss is the most fit and qualified candidate to represent the workers of Missoula County.

We are currently facing severe state Medicaid cuts. We could shortly be unemployed. If this happens, the population at the Poverello Center, the population at the State Hospital, the prison population, and the population of the homeless camps under the bridges will increase. Some of the most vulnerable persons in society will be unable to seek help, and their helpers will be left to collect unemployment.

We implore you to support the care and treatment of persons suffering from disabling illness, as well as the just treatment of mental health workers throughout the country. Be kind and offer a smile the next time you pass a homeless person on the sidewalk. Think carefully about who you want to be your next county commissioner. And be a voice for democracy and a living wage for all persons who work hard daily to meet the needs of the most at-risk of society’s members.

Unionizing was a good move. Maybe now unresponsive political officials, like Commissioner Curtiss, will realize they can’t keep squeezing workers to do more with less while they give empty lip service to living wages amidst increasing caseloads and budget cuts.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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7 Responses to After Unionizing, Mental Health Workers Call Out Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss

  1. *Eric says:

    Don’t they already have good working conditions, and all the protections of the other county employees? Did they actually believe that if they formed a Union that they would be handed a contract with guaranteed raises, a no-layoff clause, etc.? That’s not how it works.

    • if you define good working conditions as getting paid less for more work and needing food stamps and subsidized housing to live, then yes, they have it made. also, they are not county employees, not sure where you got that idea. I will also add that case management is a more fiscally sound form of support than institutional intervention, something a fiscal conservative should support.

  2. Eric says:

    I didnt investigate it – I assumed that if they were calling out a County Commissioner that they worked for the County. That’s what I get for making assumptions.

    • Curtiss is president of the board of WMMHC, that’s why they are calling her out. I am curious why the Missoulian chose a tearful picture of Curtiss to go along with the op-ed.

  3. Eric says:

    I took some time this weekend to take a look at this.

    What people do not understand, is that this group of hospitals is technically a not-for-profit enterprise, while the administrators, vendors, and everybody else involved are making a profit, or at least a good living off of it.

    Forming a Union was not a bad idea, as long as the employees have the fortitude to tell them what changes they need to make, and follow through with it.

    I was a little curious about Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski – something in the way she writes I guess, and I can’t say she’s the spokesperson I would want. Looking at some of the things she’s says, like how there are only a ‘few’ good fathers out there, and the rest are worthless, is totally wrong – I can introduce her to whole streets full of good fathers. I know she see’s a lot of troubles people, but honestly? Few good fathers in Montana?

  4. JC says:

    Curtis is going to be primaried by a very good candidate. It would be a good time for her to retire. We’ll see what she decides to do in the next couple of days…

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