Places for People workers call for company support in unionization efforts
About two dozen union-organizing employees from Places for People and allies gathered Monday outside the company’s office in Soulard — they were hoping to speak with the company’s board of leaders as they entered the building for a meeting.
It was a vigil-themed event. Workers lit several candles in a show of peace toward company leadership.
But company leadership never showed up, at least not near the entrance of the building where organizers stood on Monday. Since July, workers have been organizing with plans to ultimately become a certified local under SEIU Healthcare, a labor union that represents more than 90,000 health care and child care workers across the country.
In a letter circulated on Monday, which currently has over 200 signatures, workers appealed to the company’s board members to join them in the fight against “a broken system.”
“We recognize the pressures you face from state and federal agencies and other funding sources in a broader culture of austerity and systematic inequality,” the letter reads. “We understand that managing the significant growth our agency has seen in recent years is a complex task with imperfect results.
“We can become leaders among organizations like ours grappling with similar challenges, if worker voice is united with executive leadership.”
Laura McCallister, chief executive officer of Places for People, in an emailed statement acknowledged the staff is considering a vote to unionize.
“Taking care of our staff as they do their critical work is our focus during the ongoing mental health crisis which has strained our mental health care system and care providers,” McCallister said. “If our employees vote to form a union, Places for People is prepared to bargain in good faith.”
In the letter, workers also called on management for a fair and open unionizing process, free from retaliation and harassment, which they say they’ve experienced since they began organizing efforts in July. They accuse management of dissuading workers from participating in unionizing efforts.
The organizing workers have filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
Danielle Kimbrel, an outpatient therapist who has been with the nonprofit for four years, said workers have three main priorities.
“We are asking the board for a neutrality space to have conversations with our coworkers to keep them informed and get their voices heard, no matter if they’re supportive or not, without repercussions,” Kimbrel said. “We are asking them to stop covertly union busting, which they have continued to do despite their overt union busting discontinuing."
“And we are asking for them to support the process of a free and fair election," she said.
Places for People, a community behavioral health organization comprised of over 45 varying teams, provides assistance to people who are on the road to recovery after experiencing mental health and substance use disorders. It was founded five decades ago.
The company also assists individuals in developing the skills needed to manage their illnesses.
Workers include custodians, nursing aides, technicians, case workers and substance abuse specialists. Union organizers said they have not filed for union certification with the National Labor Relations Board as efforts are ongoing.
They said they have not received recognition or support for unionization from the Places for People leadership board, either.
If their unionization effort is successful, organizers said they are looking to be able to bargain for more equity in pay, time off and other health care benefits.
According to Gregory Tumlin, a substance abuse counselor at Places for People, many employees work over 55 hours a week but only get paid for 40 hours. Tumlin has been with the organization for nearly two years.
“I work with some of the most seriously mentally ill people who abuse substances,” Tumlin said Monday. “In the last two months, four people on my caseload have died. It affects me mentally and emotionally. But I had to use one of my sick days last week to grieve.”
Tumlin criticized the company for not providing them with time off for mental health.
“It’s tough. It’s hard working in the community, and we build relationships with the people and they overdose and die. We need to be at our best. I should not have to request a sick day off when one of my clients dies.”
While McCallister didn’t acknowledge all worker claims made against the company, she said the company is still dedicated to their mission.
“Places for People remains committed to our mission of improving the physical and behavioral health of the individuals, families and communities we serve and those who support the provision of these services,” she said.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen announced its support of the nonprofit workers in a resolution passed last week.
“The Board urges Places for People leadership to meet with workers and their chosen representative SEIU Healthcare Missouri to negotiate a fair election process that prevents intimidation and retaliation by either party and creates a legitimate and transparent process by which workers may decide whether to unionize,” the resolution reads.