A legislative interim committee also began drafting legislation to address the hospital’s problems

May 16, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com

 Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0).

 

When Missoula Rep. Danny Tenenbaum toured the Montana State Hospital on Wednesday, he was dismayed by how patients at the state’s psychiatric facility were housed and the lack of rehabilitative services offered to patients — and on Friday, Tenenbaum and other lawmakers pressed the state health department for answers about what is being done to help the struggling hospital.

“I just want Montanans who live with dementia to not have to fear ending up in that place. And I would really like a commitment that reflects the urgency of the situation,” Tenenbaum told Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier on Friday. “You’re in the position to do better; you are in the position to make the decisions and to spend the money in order to provide better care for these people.”

A recent federal investigation found that the Montana State Hospital failed to protect patients against deadly falls and COVID-19 outbreaks, resulting in the hospital’s loss of federal funding. On Friday, Meier appeared before the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee and stood behind his administration’s systematic approach to fixing the problems at the Warm Springs hospital.

“Step one is understanding how to fix the problem, and we have to still work within our budget,” Meier told the committee. “And we have to understand that this is a multifaceted issue, that there is no easy or quick solution.”

Part of the DPHHS plan to fix problems at the hospital is the hiring of New York based consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal, who recently signed a $2.2 million contract with the state to assess ongoing problems at the hospital and provide recommendations to the state. Meier also said the department is extending its contract with Mountain Pacific Quality Health, which is tasked with looking at specific issues found during the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid investigation of the hospital earlier this year.

Meier said Alvarez and Marsal began its work on April 18 and has met with a handful of stakeholders in the state and at the hospital, including staff, union representatives and disability rights advocacy groups. He also noted the removal the hospital’s administrator Kyle Fouts, perhaps the most concrete move by DPHHS so far.

Fouts was facing a slew of allegations by employees, including creating a hostile work environment, but has never publicly addressed the complaints.

The interim legislative committee also discussed Friday two pieces of draft legislation aiming to address the chronic problems at the Montana State Hospital. One would add additional oversight to the hospital by requiring it to submit complaints to the state as well as Disability Rights Montana, a nonprofit advocacy group in the state.

The second would begin the process of building out other care options for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients and eventually end the practice of involuntarily committing those patients to the hospital. But Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, warned lawmakers that moving too quickly may backfire.

“Please give us the beds before you change where you are going to send people. It does not work to change the commitment process first,” he told lawmakers on Friday. “We are fully in support of trying to get people with Alzheimer’s and dementia out of MSH, but please build the resources first.“

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, who has taken the lead in drafting the bill with Tenenbaum, a Democrat, proposed a three-year timeline for the legislation. “The first part of the bill is that by 2023 we have policy in place to find places for the people that are there, and by 2025 is when we stop admissions,” she said Friday.

The committee has until August to vote on the draft legislation.

In the meantime, Tenenbaum said he would like the hospital to disperse Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, who are housed in the hospital’s Spratt unit, to other areas of the hospital to prevent the overcrowding he said he witnessed during his tour.

“If we return for a tour of the state hospital before our next meeting, which is June 27, are we going to see that same four people in a room?” Tenenbaum said. “I’m talking about finding a setup so that you don’t have four people with dementia living in one bedroom.”

Jack Griswold, employee union president at the hospital, told the Daily Montanan on Friday that while there has been reduced admissions to other wings of the hospital, those wings are not designed to provide the level of care patients housed in the Spratt unit require.

“The logistics don’t work out; we would have to basically entirely revamp those units,” he said.

The committee will meet again in June.

 
May 9, 2022
MainStreetMontana.co
BY: 
ailyMontana.com

 BriAnne Moline runs a child care provider business, but she competes with fast food companies that can pay $13. She runs into red tape as well. She and other child care workers across the country demonstrated Monday for equity and better pay. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

 

BriAnne Moline is a child care provider, and even though her Wild Wonders Early Learning Program is rated a four STAR operation, she competes with fast food restaurants for staff.

She counts three employees and has expanded her business despite red tape, but Moline said she still turns away more than four families a week who need help with child care in Missoula, and she herself qualifies for Medicaid.

“We must build a better child care system,” Moline said.

 Kathy Dey, who works in child care in Missoula, handed out postcards and buttons at a demonstration for workers. Buttons read, “I’m at work today because I have child care.” (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

 

Medical receptionist Chelsea Nichols helps people make appointments for work, and she sees herself as a connecting block between the community and Frenchtown clinic where she works. She’s also a parent who pays for care for her 3-year-old, Sterling.

“If I didn’t have child care, I wouldn’t be able to work,” Nichols said.

Yet the cost of child care is substantial, an estimated one third of the income of most Montanans and roughly twice her own rent, Nichols said. And spots are limited, with Montana meeting just half of the demand from parents at most, according to the most recent KIDS COUNT report.

“If we don’t have child care, then they can’t contribute to our community and to our economy,” Nichols said.

Monday, some 25 people gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse lawn for the Day Without Child Care Strike, joining child care workers and supporters at Kalispell’s Depot Park and across the country to call for living wages for providers, affordable care for all families, and an equitable child care system “built on racial justice.” People demonstrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in a showing Missoula’s Grace Decker said is unusual by its nature.

Decker, with Missoula County Zero to Five, said industry workers have been “rocked by even the suggestion of a strike” because they have an ethic of care and don’t want to make life harder for parents. They are the least secure workers often earning $9 to $11 an hour, she said, but they are also essential. 

“If every child care provider everywhere went on strike, the economy would be on its knees within a day,” said Decker, in advance of the event.

The KIDS COUNT analysis estimated that inadequate child care causes Montana businesses to lose $55 million and parents to miss out on $145 million in wages.

At the demonstration, Decker noted workers love caring for children, but society shouldn’t assume people will continue to work in child care just because it’s fun and they love children. She had noted earlier that child care professionals are leaving the field in high numbers.

“They can’t spend love at the gas pump, and they can’t spend love at the grocery store,” Decker said on the courthouse lawn.

The most recent KIDS COUNT report put numbers to some of the stories speakers shared Monday. For example, it said families in 2020 paid from $8,400 to $9,500 for child care, more than the cost of in-state college tuition.

 Child care providers compete with fast food companies for workers. Child care workers earn just $9 to $11 an hour, according to Missoula County Zero to Five. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

 

The May 2021 report, a project of the nonprofit Montana Budget & Policy Center, also noted the problem is more pronounced in rural areas, with six counties lacking even one licensed child care provider at the time: “On average, rural counties have child care for 23 percent of children with all parents working, compared to 38 percent for moderately rural counties and 43 percent in the least rural counties.”

Missoula has more providers by comparison, but Moline, with Wild Wonders, still ticked off many barriers businesses such as hers face, including that some property owners are unwilling to rent to child care providers because they consider them too much liability. Plus, she said it can take three to eight weeks — and many phone calls and emails — to get a worker approved by the state.

Meanwhile, Moline hears aspiring employees asking for $13 an hour, or $27,040 annually, and she’d like to offer them even more — health benefits, a 401(k), and paid time off. KIDS COUNT notes child care workers earned $22,900, in 2020, just above the $18,000 of those earning minimum wage.

At the event, Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero said the word “strike” can put fear in people’s hearts, but the demonstration on the lawn wasn’t pitting providers against parents. Rather, she said it was a day of solidarity, a call to action for government, businesses, nonprofits and community members to figure out how to change the fact that critical workers in an essential field are also some of the lowest paid — “It doesn’t make sense.”

 Missoula Sen. Shannon O’Brien urged demonstrators to communicate with their elected leaders to improve the child care industry. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

 

After sharing an observation that high school students who fell behind had been ill prepared even by the time they had started kindergarten, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Missoula Democrat and former teacher, led the demonstrators in a chant about “The most important job.”

Montana has a problem statewide, O’Brien said. But she called on people on the lawn to participate in their democracy and communicate with their elected leaders at all levels for change.

“Friends, there is a solution,” O’Brien said.

In a statement following the demonstration, Kalispell’s Renee August, executive director of the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children, said the situation is a crisis. The association noted Congress is considering new federal investments in early child care and education and urged action.

“Montana families need Congress to deliver on its promise to help families find affordable care, support workers with living wages, and help ensure our child care system is equitable,” August said in a statement.

Montana KIDS COUNT

The demand for child care slots in Montana far outstrips the supply, according to Montana KIDS COUNT of the Montana Budget & Policy Center. It notes the situation is worse for parents of infants and toddlers ages 0 to 1 year old, and the existing crisis deepened in the pandemic and affects the economy.

“Labor force participation for mothers with young children dropped 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2020 in the three-state region of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” the report said. “Inadequate child care also impacts businesses. When workers cannot access child care, businesses experience lower productivity and struggle to recruit and retain workers. A recent analysis estimates that inadequate child care causes Montana businesses to lose $55 million while parents miss out on $145 million in wages.”

 

Knudsen says ‘leftward shift’ has become ‘intolerable’

May 9, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
diailymontanan.com 

 The office of the Attorney General of Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

 

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and two other Republican attorneys general have pulled out of the national association of state attorneys general.

The move to pull out of the organization follows Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who left the organization last year. Until then, membership included every state attorney general in the union.

Knudsen, along with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have all quit the National Association of Attorneys General. That organization had represented every other state’s attorney general and has been an organization for 125 years.

In a letter posted this week to Knudsen’s Facebook site, Paxton, Schmitt and Knudsen cite the “Association’s leftward shift over the past half decade, and said the organization had become “intolerable.”

The Daily Montanan reached out for more clarification about which issues were problematic for Knudsen but had received no comment by the end of the day Friday.

The letter also said that Knudsen, Paxton and Schmitt had met with the senior NAAG leadership, but nothing had been done to assuage their concerns.

 Attorney General Austin Knudsen. (Provided by the Montana Attorney General’s Office for the Daily Montanan.)

 

“Those conversations were friendly, but nothing has been done. And we see no signs that anything will change in the future,” the letter stated.

When Marshall left the organization, he told it that he’d be hiring a young lawyer to his consumer protection division with the dues.

In 2020, the State of Montana, spent more than $41,000 in dues and expenses related to the membership, according to the state’s online expenditure database.

In 2021, that number had fallen to $7,951.

“We will need to discuss the administrative and financial details involved in extracting ourselves from NAAG,” the letter closes.

“While we are disappointed in their decision, NAAG would welcome the Missouri, Montana and Texas offices to re-engage as active members at any time,” said NAAG Chief Communications Officer Allison Gilmore.

It’s also a sudden move for Montana’s attorney general. In 2019, then-attorney general Tim Fox, also a Republican, was elected the leader of the organization and touted civility as his emphasis during his year-long term as leader.

The American Tort Reform Association cheered Knudsen’s move in a press release, and pointed to its recently released report, “The National Association of Attorneys General: A Nonprofit that Acts Like a Plaintiffs’ Firm.”

The conclusion of the report was deeply critical of the National Association of Attorneys General, saying it “has only one goal: suing businesses for profit.

“Far from being a neutral entity, the NAAG massively benefits financially from these lawsuits, and in turn, uses its considerable resources to help coordinate and facilitate even more lawsuits,” the report concluded.

That’s a conclusion that the national association disputes.

“We will continue to provide a community for attorneys general and their staff to work together in a bipartisan way to serve their constituents and advocate for the public interest,” Gilmore said. “Bipartisan committees of attorneys general, not NAAG staff, control how the organization’s funds are spent. Information can also be requested at any time by any NAAG member.”

Gilmore pointed to several resources including training, annual meetings, publication, counseling and appellate advocacy support as some of the services members receive.



 

“It’s a family affair [and] I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “I knew I would get called to work in the middle of the night. I knew I’d have no regular schedule. I knew that because that’s how my family lived.”

Freight trains don’t usually run on a set schedule and they don’t stop moving just because it’s a weekend or holiday. However, on the flip side of that unpredictable lifestyle was the fact that for many years railroads could provide workers with great compensation and benefits without requiring a college degree. The good pay and benefits were the reasons Wassam hired on back in 2014. 

But Wassam says working conditions on BNSF Railway, one of the largest railroads in the country, have worsened in the last few years, and the introduction of a new attendance policy earlier this year — one union officials have called “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier” — was his last straw. He resigned in March and he’s not alone. In the last three months, more than 700 railroaders have walked off the job at BNSF because of it, according to the union.

“It felt offensive,” Wassam said of the new attendance policy. “I gave so much to this job, and this new system made it seem like it wasn’t enough.”

CHAOTIC SCHEDULES

Federal law mandates that locomotive engineers, conductors and other railroad employees work no more than 12 hours a day and have a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts. But even with those hours written in stone, working for the railroad can be a chaotic existence — one day an engineer might go to work at 9 a.m., and the next day they might start at 5 p.m. Not to mention the fact that half the time they would be spending their off time away from home, taking their 10 hours rest and waiting to take another train back to their home terminal. Wassam said the unusual hours made living a normal life nearly impossible, even more so with a family. 

“You give up so much when you work for the railroad, but it impacts your family even more,” he said, adding that for years he’s never known if he’ll be able to be home for holidays and other special events. 

Wassam said when he started at the railroad, employees could normally take five weekdays and two weekend days off per month. At the beginning of each month, the railroad would look back at the last 90 days, and if an employee had been available to work 75% of the time then they remained in good standing, according to Wassam. That system made it possible to take personal days for things like doctor’s appointments, family commitments and more. 

But not long after Wassam got hired, BNSF changed how it assigned its employees to trains. Instead of having them work the same stretch of track every trip, the company would call employees to work trains going in any direction out of their home base: Instead of working from Whitefish to Havre on every run, Wassam might instead get called to take a train to Spokane. At about the same time, BNSF also decided to put fewer employees on the “extra board,” Wassam said. Those two things combined to make it even harder to figure out when an employee might get called to work. 

Wassam and other BNSF employees that Montana Free Press spoke with said the change made an already challenging work-life balance worse, but it was nothing compared to what was announced in January. Starting Feb. 1, the railroad implemented a new attendance policy called “Hi-Viz” that assigns all employees 30 points. If they miss a call or take an unplanned day off, even for a family emergency, sickness or fatigue, they lose points. The exact number of points deducted depends on the type of absence and where it falls on the calendar (weekend days and holidays cost more points). An employee can get four points back if they’re available to work 14 days in a row. If an employee loses all their points, they can be disciplined. If they lose their points multiple times they can be fired. 

In a statement to MTFP, BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent wrote that the new policy was implemented to “improve the consistency of crews being available for their shifts to run trains,” particularly during the ongoing supply-chain crisis, which has hobbled nearly every sector of the transportation industry. Railroad officials also noted that BNSF had not updated its attendance policy in more than 20 years and wanted to make it more consistent with the rest of the industry. 

 “This draconian attendance policy has made a poor work environment even worse.”

GREG REGAN, PRESIDENT, TRANSPORTATION TRADES DEPARTMENT OF THE AFL-CIO

“We understand that change is hard but, as with every other railroad and service business, delivering for our customers requires employees to be available to work their assigned shifts,” Kent wrote.

But the labor unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division, which represent more than 17,000 BNSF employees, didn’t see it that way and immediately began polling members on whether or not to go on strike over the new policy.

“This draconian attendance policy has made a poor work environment even worse,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, told MTFP. 

Before the unions could finish polling members on whether or not to strike, BNSF filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a restraining order against any work stoppage. A federal judge in Texas ruled in favor of the railroad, thus precluding a strike. Railroad-labor relations are governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926. It was the first federal law that guaranteed the right of workers to organize, but it also set a high bar for when a railroad union could strike, which could cripple the economy. 

Regan said most of the big railroads in North America have “severe” attendance policies, but that BNSF’s new Hi-Viz policy is by far the worst, in his opinion. Because of it, many railroaders have quit. According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division, more than 700 operating employees have resigned since Feb. 1, and some have said the number is even higher. But during a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., a BNSF executive called that figure “greatly exaggerated.” BNSF declined to offer its own figure to MTFP. 

BNSF officials wrote that its operating employees receive three to four weeks vacation and more than 10 “Personal Leave Days,” which was increased by 25% at the beginning of the year. Since Hi-Viz was implemented, the railroad said it has seen more employees using vacation days. 

“BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them,” Kent wrote. “We believe we can adapt together to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”

RECORD PROFITS

Wassam said he was already growing tired of the railroad lifestyle before the new attendance policy went into effect — especially since he has three young children at home and rarely gets to see them. Because of the solid benefits the industry provides, including a federally run retirement program separate from Social Security, railroaders often think twice about leaving, but Wassam said Hi-Viz pushed him over the line. 

While Wassam no longer works for the railroad, he’s still frustrated by what he’s seeing because he has friends and family who still work in the industry. He’s not only worried about the impacts the new policy will have on railroaders’ personal lives, but also on safety, particularly if employees feel they have to go to work fatigued because they fear losing points. He also worried that the railroad might use its shrinking employee numbers as an excuse to implement one-person crews, a practice that labor groups have fought vigorously in recent years. Presently, most freight trains are staffed with two people, but there is no law preventing there being only one employee on a train. 

BNSF’s labor strife comes at a precarious time for America’s freight railroads. In recent months, some of the largest railroads in America, including BNSF, have struggled to deliver reliable service to customers, with trains running slower and freight cars sitting longer in rail yards waiting for deliveries. Service has gotten so bad that the federal regulator that oversees the industry called executives from four of the country’s largest railroads to a hearing last week in Washington, D.C., to explain themselves. BNSF’s Vice President of Transportation Matt Garland admitted during the hearing that his company’s “service has not met our own expectations,” but said that it was quickly hiring more workers and taking old locomotives out of storage to meet demand. 

“In the weeks since I left the railroad, I’ve been to my kids’ dance competitions, Jiu Jitsu competitions and wrestling matches. It’s been so great to be able to tell my kids, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’”

FORMER BNSF RAILROADER BRADY WASSAM

Executives blamed the lingering impacts of the pandemic, the ongoing supply-chain crisis and labor shortages for its woes. But rail customers and union officials accused the railroads of trying to do more with less by making drastic cuts to boost profits and please their shareholders. That last claim is bolstered by numbers: According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, America’s largest freight railroads have reduced their workforce by a combined 45,000 people, or 29%, in the last six years

In 2021, BNSF posted record-breaking profits, despite moving fewer carloads of freight than it had before the pandemic. 

Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said the railroad’s decision to implement a strict new attendance policy while making billions of dollars in profit has resulted in a demoralized workforce. Because of that, he’s not surprised that some employees are calling it quits. 

Wassam said he loved working for the railroad — “Driving a train is every little kid’s dream, and I got to do that for eight years” — but that he has no regrets about leaving. He recently became an electrician apprentice and said he’s loving every minute of it, particularly because he can be home with his family every night. 

“In the weeks since I left the railroad, I’ve been to my kids’ dance competitions, Jiu Jitsu competitions and wrestling matches,” he said. “It’s been so great to be able to tell my kids, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’”



 

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