The State Worker

State psychiatric nurses are working back-to-back shifts. New proposal would give them a choice

Overworked mental health nurses would be able to turn down overtime shifts in some of the state’s most dangerous institutions if the Legislature adopts a bill sponsored by their union.

The proposal, Assembly Bill 529, aims to address well-documented fatigue among the 3,600 or so psychiatric technicians who care for inmates and patients in state hospitals and prisons. It would eliminate the common practice of forcing psychiatric technicians and technician assistants to work back-to-back eight-hour shifts

In jobs where new employees are taught to keep their backs to walls and their eyes on exits, the extra hours from mandatory overtime can slow alertness and response times, he said.

“It kind of puts in a little more added danger in those work scenarios,” said Eric Soto, president of the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians.

Soto said the second shifts, following workdays in which nurses can face attacks from patients or witness attacks on co-workers, often come with no advance warning.

“Sometimes you’re at the mercy of a facility,” he said.

Understaffed state hospitals have used mandatory overtime to help meet required nurse-to-patient ratios and to compensate for hard-to-fill vacancies in state service, according to a 2016 Little Hoover Commission report on the issue.

The report cited studies that found nurses were three times as likely to make an error when working more than 12 hours and that their health suffered with longer shifts, including increased risks of heart disease and hypertension and increases in the time it takes to become pregnant.

The report recommended the state find ways to reduce all overtime at hospitals, both mandatory and voluntary.

Most of the psychiatric technicians the Assembly bill would protect work for the Department of State Hospitals. A spokesman for the department said it doesn’t comment on pending legislation but provided the following statement on how the department uses overtime at its hospitals:

“In accordance with state law, the department must ensure that it provides adequate staffing to meet patient care needs on a 24 hour, 7 day a week basis,” spokesman Ken August said in an email. “There are many factors that contribute to the use of mandatory overtime including staffing ratios, fluctuations in patient acuity, and vacancies. The department is currently reviewing its use of mandatory overtime and options for reducing it.”

In the second half of 2018, nurses at the department’s five hospitals worked a total of about 441,000 hours of overtime, 32,000 of which were involuntary, according to department figures.

Involuntary overtime hours have decreased in the last few years, and union lobbyist Coby Pizzotti said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to hire more psychiatric technicians over the next three years will help alleviate overtime needs.

The proposed law would give nurses who work for the state similar protections as those who work in the private sector, where shifts are generally kept below 12 hours. The proposal allows hospitals to use mandatory overtime in emergencies, as does the private sector law.

The union has sought the change for several years but has been unable to eliminate mandatory overtime through collective bargaining, Pizzotti said. An earlier Senate bill to get rid of mandatory overtime passed the Legislature but didn’t make it past the governor’s desk, Pizzotti said.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee