Mental health techs protest working conditions, safety at Nebraska psychiatric hospital

Lincoln Regional Center workers are speaking out about conditions they say have gone unaddressed, including violent assaults on staff

By: - October 21, 2023 6:59 pm

Mental health specialists, or techs, of the Lincoln Regional Center rally outside the Governor’s Mansion on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Lincoln. From left to right: Yvette Olivetti, Yeon Choi, Roxana Mora, Jennifer Head and her son, Aymar Dossou and Scott Madsen. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Mental health specialists at the Lincoln Regional Center are escalating calls for change after raising awareness of their working conditions at Nebraska’s psychiatric hospital.

Mental health specialists, or techs, of the Lincoln Regional Center rally outside the Nebraska State Capitol on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The specialists, or techs, rallied Saturday outside the Governor’s Mansion and regrouped at the north steps of the State Capitol to debrief with State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who has been one of the sole state officials working to address their concerns.

Jennifer Head, a tech for about four years, described a patient’s assault on two techs last week after about 3 a.m. The patient, who had no behavioral issues since he’d been at the facility, assaulted a woman in her 60s or 70s.

“He assaulted her, kicked her like she was a soccer ball,” Head said.

The patient then ran up to another staff member and punched her head into a wall. The shift included three women, Head said, and the assault occurred just after a male staffer left because the patient had been watching.

It wasn’t until one of the three women ran to a male patient and asked for help that the situation ended, Head added. She said it is sad the staff had to feel comfortable asking patients for help.

‘It’s about not getting hurt’

The workers, with just under a dozen rallying, said it’s conditions such as these that raise alarm. 

Yvette Olivetti, a union rep for techs at the Lincoln Regional Center, holds a sign with pictures of a handful of workers who have been assaulted by patients on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Yvette Olivetti, a union rep for the techs, said it’s because of inaction by the state that they were rallying, including for the Department of Administrative Services to hire more techs.

“Words are meaningless unless they’re backed up by action, and that is going to show techs that they actually care about our safety, our well-being, our own mental health and various other issues,” Olivetti added.

Several of the workers described other conditions needing to be addressed, including a loss of a 45-minute break window (now at 30 minutes) and hiring more staff to reduce mandatory overtime shifts. Staff already work overtime to pick up the slack, they said, because if they refuse, they’re mandated to do so anyway.

Every worker in attendance described working at least some overtime nearly every week with regular 12- or 16-hour shifts. Many have worked those shifts since they started at the Regional Center, but they said it’s gotten to its worst point this year. 

Scott Madsen, who has worked as a tech for about 4.5 years, said that while there are many issues, the main concern is safety. It’s hard to say the full impact improving working conditions could have, he added, and how many dangerous incidents could be prevented.

“All the other stuff, I mean, yeah, it’s fine,” Madsen told the Nebraska Examiner. “But it’s about not getting hurt.”

‘A slap in the face’

Then-interim CEO Bo Botelho of the Department of Health and Human Services responded to Blood on Sept. 8 detailing what he described as “inaccurate” in Blood’s letter. He offered little details on how the department would address workers’ concerns.

Assaults are not at heightened levels, Botelho wrote, and “while one incident is too many,” there were 33 incidents measuring level 2 or 3 this year as of Aug. 30. That’s a decline of 24% compared to that period in 2022, according to Botelho.

Assaults on LRC staff rose to 93 last year, up from 51 in 2021.

Jennifer Head, at left, rallies with Aymar Dossou, at right, for better working conditions at the Lincoln Regional Center on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Lincoln. The “promise” of Gov. Jim Pillen was to take care of the workers, they said. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Aymar Dossou, who has worked nearly two years as a tech, said the workers feel they’ve exhausted their options for recourse and the responses they’ve been getting are “gaslighting.”

Olivetti said the data they’re being provided is incomplete and “does not match up with what we live being technicians at this facility.”

“It’s kind of a slap in the face to us because we know the reality of the job,” Olivetti said.

A spokesperson for DHHS said in a Friday statement to the Nebraska Examiner that discussions with teammates at the Regional Center are ongoing.

“The Department is committed to continuing these ongoing discussions and improving upon both the mental health services being provided and the public servant experience at the Lincoln Regional Center,” the statement reads.

‘It’s not in us’ to walk away

Despite the challenges, the workers choose to stay because it’s rewarding and because they want to care for the patients, said Roxana Mora, a tech of about 1.5 years.

Head said it’s a good feeling to spend her days with the patients building rapport and relationships and knowing the patients can come and talk to the staff. That’s more time than she can spend with her son, who also joined the rally.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue addresses workers from the Lincoln Regional Center on the steps of the Nebraska State Capitol on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

As an example, Head said a patient was in the yard Friday and refused to get up, but Head’s relationship with the patient made the difference as he ignored four or five other staff. 

“It’s not going to happen all the time, but to walk away [from the LRC], it’s not in us,” Head said.

‘We’re not asking for the moon’

Yeon Choi, a tech of four years, said her “worst day” at work came when there were only two staff on a unit with 19 patients. With the other worker in the bathroom, Choi walked the hallway by herself wondering what would happen if a patient overpowered her.

Blood said the workers can’t underestimate the importance of their advocacy and encouraged them to keep fighting, maintain a paper trail for possible legal action and set up a meeting with Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon to discuss further.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” Dossou said. “We just want to be safe.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.