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HUNTINGTON — It could have been a cookout.

That’s what employees at Mildred Mitchell Bateman said they were planning before their administration called the health department on them. So instead, they picketed.

“We just want what’s right for our patients,” said one employee who spoke to The Herald-Dispatch under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “We don’t want to be more stressed than our patients.”

Standing outside the hospital’s fence along Norway Avenue, employees of the state-run psychiatric hospital protested what they say are poor working conditions that impact their mental health and put their patients at risk.

The unionized employees said they have tried to speak with the administration about the issues, but the concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, they say hospital administration is using bullying and fear to divide hospital staff and prevent them from coming forward with complaints.

“We used to be able to recruit people despite the low pay because we were like a family,” the employee said. “But new administration changed that.”

Gary DeLuke, field organizer for UE Local 170, the West Virginia Public Workers Union, said understaffing has been an issue for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Staff is also suspended regularly for not wearing masks or not getting a weekly COVID-19 test, though they say no patient inside the hospital has ever been tested for the virus.

Staff have been suspended for up to a year without pay for “nonsense” allegations from patients, they said.

“One employee told me she worked a 72-hour work day,” DeLuke said. “That puts the patients at risk.”

Two hospital employees, who combined have over 18 years working at the hospital, said the low staffing has resulted in patient injuries and self-harm is occurring at a greater rate.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Resources said concerns at the hospital have been investigated, evaluated and not substantiated.

“Bateman specializes in the temporary or sometimes permanent care of residents who, as a result of psychological disorders, require routine assistance, treatment, in a specialized and controlled environment,” said a statement from DHHR. “Consequently, several of the patients pose a significant danger to themselves or others and are subject to involuntary commitment from this type of diagnosis.”

Hospital staff say not only are the increases in harm true, the hospital administration lies to make things look better than they are.

According to the DHHR Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification, Bateman has not had a health investigation since 2019, when it was found to not be in compliance with federal regulations. According to the report, only 1 in 10 patients who were intellectually disabled and needed a representative were informed of their patient rights and had a representative explain their care plan. Hospital staff also failed to meet all the needs of a person’s discharge plan. The issues were reportedly corrected by October, the last time the state inspected the hospital, according to the OHFLC website.

Employees Monday said they just want to be able to sit down with administration to set goals for improving the situation and begin working toward those goals together.

As for what the public should know, the two employees said they personally wouldn’t admit their own families to the hospital.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams stopped by the picket Monday, as did Cabell County delegates John Mandt, Daniel Linville and Sean Hornbuckle. The delegates said they had each spoken with the DHHR secretary about the issues.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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