Low pay, heavy workloads and unprecedented worker shortages: that’s the reality facing mental health professionals at one of the largest behavioral health providers in Santa Clara County.

Dressed in purple shirts and carrying signs, more than 50 members of SEIU Local 521 rallied Wednesday in front of Momentum for Health’s headquarters in San Jose. They’re demanding the nonprofit clinic address ongoing workplace issues, including health insurance for dependents, that are driving workers away and hurting patient care as the union fights for a better contract.

Jessica Delgado, a third generation Momentum for Health case manager, said the low pay and inadequate benefits might drive her and her 5-year-old daughter out of the area. She currently pays $14,400 a year so her daughter can have health insurance.

“I’m a single mom, and because the bills keep increasing we end up having to scramble a lot every month to pay them,” Delgado told San Jose Spotlight. “We’re living paycheck to paycheck, and it’s becoming impossible.”

Momentum is among the largest non-governmental behavioral health providers in Northern California, with more than 400 workers. The organization provides services to at least 4,000 residents a year across roughly 15 sites in Santa Clara County. The nonprofit also works with the county on a number of mental health initiatives, including a community-driven mobile mental health crisis response team launching this year.

As Silicon Valley emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the needs for mental and behavioral health services have skyrocketed, but the nonprofit’s leaders have not provided adequate resources to address the increased workload, the workers said. For example, Momentum doesn’t pay for its workers’ dependent health coverage, making it difficult for those with children to make ends meet.

Momentum is also facing unprecedented worker shortages, with roughly 100 employees leaving in the last year, union officials said. The nonprofit has 92 open positions, which translates to a 27 percent vacancy rate for clinicians and registered nurses, 22 percent for addiction counselors and 33 percent for peer navigators. Workers said the ongoing understaffing has resulted in six-month waits for therapy and unmanageable caseloads. The union is in negotiations for a contract expiring at the end of the month.

“We need a fair contract to continue serving the population we work with,” said Francisco Flores, a case manager of 25 years at Momentum. “In the last three years, mental health awareness has grown exponentially, and there has been major growth in the mental health field. But we’re not keeping up because we can’t keep our employees.”

Workers are asking for higher pay and dependent health coverage to help with retention and recruitment efforts, among other things.

A shortage of behavioral health workers is not unique to Momentum. As the cost of living and housing in San Jose continues to rise, many professionals are moving out of the area or joining the private sectors. Santa Clara County’s health care system is also struggling to recruit and retain workers.

David Mineta, president and CEO of Momentum for Health, said the organization has tried to address workers’ concerns and aims to come to an agreement before the contract expires.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have adjusted salaries and accommodated employees to ensure that staff felt supported and client care remained uninterrupted. Additionally, we routinely seek input and feedback from both staff and clients to foster a community of mutual respect and understanding,” Mineta told San Jose Spotlight. “We are invested in the lives and wellbeing of our staff and those they serve, and we are committed to coming to an understanding with our employees that takes care of them while ensuring the best care for our clients.”

The rally comes after health care workers at several other health care systems, including the anchor Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, raised issues with rampant staffing shortages that have led to unsustainable and challenging workloads. Roughly 450 VMC doctors, including primary care physicians, are scheduled to strike this November over stalled contract negotiations with Santa Clara County.

The high turnover at Momentum is also hurting the most vulnerable patients, said Elsie Rodriguez, a community service specialist of two decades.

“We have patients with paranoia or schizophrenia where trust is so important,” Rodriguez told San Jose Spotlight. “When you keep having new case managers or counselors, there’s no rapport or trust, and people end up falling through the cracks.”

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight. Please use the original link when sharing: https://sanjosespotlight.com/silicon-valley-santa-clara-county-san-jose-behavioral-mental-health-workers-rally-for-better-pay-wages/