May 28, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
Lafayette, NJ – Workers at the Sunrise House drug-rehab center here were locked out on the evening of May 23, the night before they had scheduled a three-day strike to protest alleged unfair labor practices.
The 120 workers, including counselors, housekeepers, clerks, and nurses, had voted to join Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5629 last June. They had been negotiating with American Addiction Centers, the for-profit chain that owns the 110-bed facility in the hills of northwestern New Jersey, since August. AAC, based in Brentwood, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb, operates more than 20 rehab centers in eight states. It acquired Sunrise House in 2015
“AAC nurses and workers are on the frontlines of the opioid-addiction crisis, and are striving to improve safety conditions for patients and workers,” HPAE President Ann Twomey said in a statement. “This national for-profit chain, AAC, responded with an illegal lockout, rather than bargain in good faith. Their action is an affront to workers, but also to the residents in need of safe and effective treatment.”
AAC CEO Michael Cartwright said May 25 that there was no lockout, insisting that the workers had gone on strike. “Let’s be clear. It was a strike,” he told LaborPress. “It’s funny that they’re characterizing it as a lockout. They gave us a strike notice and they’re picketing. That’s a strike.”
They “went on strike 10 hours before” the deadline in their strike notice, he added.
“AAC informed us the night before the strike started that they will not allow the workers to return to work on Saturday when the strike was scheduled to end,” HPAE spokesperson Bridget Devane responded. “Additionally, they changed the locks on the doors so workers cannot access the facility. Those actions turned this into a lockout.”
The main issue in the dispute is understaffing, Devane says. The number of detox beds—where addicts go through withdrawal from opioids—increased from 18 to 29 last year, and there has been an “increasing number of incidents” where patients have hit workers. “It’s hard to de-escalate the situation when you don’t have staff around to help,” she says. The center has no security guards, so workers need to call state police if a situation turns threatening.
“I have a correctional background, so I’m used to aggressive patients, patients with an attitude,” a nurse identified as Jennifer D. said in a video HPAE posted on YouTube. “I’ve worked with murderers before, and I wasn’t as scared about my personal safety as I am with AAC.”
Many of the counselors are recovering addicts themselves, Devane adds, “so they understand what the patients are going through.” While they haven’t yet gotten their licenses, New Jersey allows rehab centers to use unlicensed counselors if they’re supervised by licensed ones—but last year, HPAE says, Sunrise House was cited by the state Department of Human Services for failing to have enough licensed or certified counseling staff.
Wages are also a concern. Most workers make less than $15 an hour, and they haven’t had a raise in three years. Housekeepers and some new counselors get $10.55, and many are working two jobs, Devane said.
Cartwright would not discuss contract issues. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into that,” he said. “The union wants to go to the press instead of working things out. They’re negotiating through the media.”
HPAE has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board about unfair labor practices such as management making unilateral changes to working conditions and not bargaining in good faith. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating complaints about conditions at Sunrise House, the union said in a statement.
Sunrise House began transferring patients to other AAC facilities as soon as it got the 10-day strike notice, Devane says, with some sent as far as California and Las Vegas, and all were out by the time the lockout began May 23. Cartwright said the facility was empty because it had stopped accepting new patients once it got the strike notice, but added that some patients had “wanted to go to other facilities.”
AAC has not given the workers a date when they can return, Devane said.