Union, Retreat entangled in labor disputes

The Brattleboro Retreat on Linden Street in Brattleboro.

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BRATTLEBORO — A former union representative at the Brattleboro Retreat is not sure if he was punished because of his union activities or because of "the sheer incompetence" of his managers, but the result was the same. On Nov. 25, Winston Roy Sailsman Jr. was fired from the job he held for nearly a decade.

"They claim it was because of a policy violation," Sailsman said on Friday morning.

Sailsman said his wife, Cassie, was working on a foster child application independently of him when he learned the child was a patient at the Retreat. Sailsman said he informed the Retreat's human resources department about the possibility he might foster the child and requested advice on the process. He said in an email response, he was referred to a policy that didn't state he was doing anything wrong. Sailsman said he couldn't forward the email to the Reformer because it has been submitted as evidence in his termination grievance.

"I never received any notice that I couldn't do this or if I did I would be terminated," Sailsman said. "I never received anything so I assumed everything was fine."

But on Nov. 20, Sailsman was placed on administrative leave before being fired on Nov. 25.

Sailsman said that if he had been given the correct policy at the time he notified human resources about the foster care process, he would not have gone ahead with the application.

"We didn't even receive the child until after I was terminated," he said, adding he and his wife are now taking care of the child. "They could have given me a warning, or even told me this could not happen."

"The Brattleboro Retreat does not discuss specific personnel matters," wrote Konstantin von Krusenstiern, vice president of development and communications at the Retreat, in an email to the Reformer. "We can, however, acknowledge that the hospital strictly enforces long-standing policies that serve as guidelines for interpersonal boundaries in clinical settings and that govern the nature of patient/staff relationships. These policies are in place to protect our patients from any potential negative outcomes. This includes a policy that explicitly prohibits Retreat staff from becoming foster parents to our patients."

Von Krusenstiern said while such involvement might seem altruistic, "It runs the risk of negatively impacting a child's therapeutic progress and give rise to unrealistic expectations and feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and low self-esteem on the part of other children in the therapeutic milieu. All interactions between patients and Retreat staff must serve the best short-term and long-term clinical interests of every individual in our care."

Sailsman began his career at the Retreat in 2010 as a mental health worker and eventually worked his way up to a utilization review specialist, a member of a team that makes sure best practices are being used in the care of Retreat patients.

Along the way, he became president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Brattleboro Retreat Local 5086 and was outspoken about how he and others believed the Retreat was mistreating or not valuing its employees enough.

"I don't know if my termination was deliberate or not," said Sailsman. "I do know [management] has shown incompetence over and over again."

He said while the Retreat's stated mission is to care for its patients in a compassionate manner, when it treats employees like it treated him, the mission is tough to implement.

"If you treat your staff well, that results in great care," said Sailsman. "This is something the Retreat has lost. Now we have people caring for patients with trauma while dealing with their own trauma in the workplace. It's detrimental to the mission."

Jack Callaci, the union representative for the Retreat, said Sailsman's treatment is emblematic of something that has changed in the past two years at the mental health facility in Brattleboro.

"Traditionally, the union and the hospital have worked closely together in reviewing grievances in a more cooperative way, sometimes outside of the process written into the contract," said Callaci. "What we have found, over the past two years, the hospital is unwilling to sustain any grievances. They will listen to us, but the decisions they made don't change. It feels like lip service."

When grievances are handled on a more informal level, it saves time and money, he said, and allows UNAP's members to provide the best service to the Retreat's patients.

"When people feel they are being treated unfairly, it puts stress on them and makes a stressful job even more difficult," said Callaci, who has worked at the Retreat since 1984.

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And in the past couple of years, more and more grievances are making their way to arbitration, he said, which costs the Retreat thousands of dollars and time away from work for management and the grieving employees.

"For decades we resolved our differences quietly and amicably among ourselves through the internal grievance procedure," stated Union Grievance Chairman Edward Dowd in a press release from UNAP. "But this current administration has corrupted the grievance process forcing the union to seek and obtain justice outside the Retreat through arbitrators, the [NLRB] and the Department of Labor."

The press release states the Retreat has discriminated against the leadership of the union with unfair and unjustified discipline. "For example the four top officers of the union have been subjected to repeated investigations, disciplines and in one case termination of employment."

As a result, UNAP was forced to file a complaint with the NLRB, states the press release. The union's complaint includes allegations that the Retreat violated basic due process rights by denying employees union representation, had interfered with membership meetings and "unfairly disciplined" current UNAP President Syiane Creamer for her union activities, removing her from various hospital committees.

"After investigating numerous unfair labor practice charges filed against the Brattleboro Retreat, the National Labor Relations Board has forwarded all of the charges to litigation," states the press release.

But in a letter to UNAP, Paul Murphy, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, wrote that the NLRB is handling the matter "in accordance with the [NLRB's] deferral policy." The policy allows the NLRB to postpone making a decision pending a grievance or arbitration process outlined in the pertinent labor contract.

Edwin Egee, the director of the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs for the National Labor Relations Board told the Reformer that the NLRB is in the process of reviewing another complaint recently submitted by UNPA.

"We will investigate and try to determine whether the employer committed unfair labor practices," he said, adding the investigation could take three months or longer.

The UNPA press release also states the Vermont Department of Labor recently determined that the Retreat "cheated" employees out of shift differential pay for employees who take sick days.

"An initial determination is that the amount is in excess of $33,000," states the press release.

"We think that amount is too low," Dowd, the Union Grievance chairman, told the Reformer. The union is requesting information from the Retreat to conduct its own audit to determine how much the employees are actually owed, he said. "We are sure the Retreat's math is off."

"The Department confirms that it received a complaint about the payment of earned sick time from the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5086," wrote Kyle Thweatt, spokesman for the Vermont Department of Labor. "However, Vermont law requires that information obtained from any employer, employee, or witness in the course of investigating a complaint of unpaid wages shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed or open to public inspection in any manner. Accordingly, the Department is not at liberty to discuss the matter further."

Thweatt noted that this is the only complaint about the Retreat that the DOL is reviewing at this time.

The Brattleboro Retreat and UNAP Local 5086 recently signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement that will be in effect through October 2022.

"While the new contract is fair and equitable for all concerned, we acknowledge certain disagreements between union and management are ongoing," wrote von Krusenstiern. "That said, the National Labor Relations Board has confirmed that claims of litigation against the Retreat on behalf of the NLRB are false."

Von Krusenstiern acknowledged that several matters between the union and the Retreat are in arbitration.

"Arbitration is a defined process for resolving disputes, and out of respect for that process the Retreat will not comment on specific details," he wrote. "We believe our employees are our most valuable asset. They do outstanding work in a rapidly changing healthcare environment that is strained by a national shortage of nurses and physicians. In spite of the time and resources currently being devoted to arbitration hearings, Retreat management and employees remain focused on providing exceptional patient care."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.