About 50 mental health specialists who handle inmates with addictions and other mental health problems want to be reclassified because their job descriptions have changed, including a requirement of a master’s degree. Under their current proposal, they’re seeking raises between 25 percent and 26 percent, which would result in a maximum salary of more than $80,000, according to a memo obtained by The Oregonian.
Like most correction workers, the mental health specialists are represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. The memo, written by Brad Holt, one of the prison mental health specialists, urges his colleagues to keep quiet about the proposal.
“Again, my gut feeling only is that with the budget having been so bad over the last 5-6 years, with step-freezes, layoffs, furloughs and increased costs of our health insurance, we are the only positions that are looking to be reclassified with a very substantial increase in pay,” Holt wrote in an email dated April 30. “I am afraid that if enough staff outside of BHS (behavioral health services) were aware, it could become a huge issue for the state and AFSCME to deal with if it became public knowledge or hit the local news media.”
Public employee unions are in the middle of bargaining over new labor contracts with state government agencies. To date, the negotiations have been kept largely under wraps.
The Department of Corrections is under a brighter spotlight this year because Gov. John Kitzhaber has singled it out as one of the reasons the state doesn’t have enough money to spend on education. Kitzhaber has asked for policy changes that ensure the prison population doesn’t continue to grow, as a way to hold down costs.
About a month ago, the state offered to reclassify the prison mental health specialists because of the new requirements, said Matt Shelby, spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services. Under the new classifications, they would become psychiatric social workers, and the state offered an undisclosed wage increase. The union made a counter offer of a bigger increase.
“It’s unresolved at this point,” Shelby said.
The reclassificiation is necessary, Shelby said because of a 2011 law that splits mental health duties. Some of the duties are more complex and require a license and more education, while others don’t, he said. Most of the prison mental health specialists fall under the higher classification, Shelby said.
According to the email, mental health specialists in the Corrections Department earn a starting wage of $3,859 a month, which tops out at $5,328, or $63,936 a year. Under the new classification proposed by the union, the starting wage would be $4,853 and a top scale of $6,747, or $80,964 per year.
Those at the top end would see an annual pay increase of $17,028, or 26.6 percent.
By way of comparison, a similar position of psychiatric social worker at the Oregon Youth Authority, which supervises juveniles and some young adults convicted of crimes, pays $66,288 a year.
Tim Woolery, who is negotiating the contract for AFSCME, defended the proposed wage increases.
“We’ve asked for more, but that doesn’t mean the state’s going to give it to us,” Woolery said. “Those people have been underpaid for a number of years.”
He said they should be paid what other psychiatric social workers make, plus some extra because of the risky nature of their work. He said he isn’t worried about public response to the request for higher pay.
“Of course the state budget and the state revenue picture are factors that come into play in this,” Woolery said. “But my job is to advocate for the members, and to be reasonable about it. And I think we are.”