County Mental Health Provider Union Says Bosses Should Explain Firing Decisions

One of Integral Care’s duties is to provide unhoused Austinites with mental health related prescriptions (Photo by Getty Images)

Organizers with the United Workers of Integral Care are calling on leadership at Travis County’s largest mental healthcare provider to make changes to prevent unjustified firings. They say transparency and better explanation around dismissals would improve job security and create a healthier work environment.

Like most employees in Texas, those who work at Integral Care do so on an “at-will” basis – meaning employee or employer can decide to part ways at any time, for almost any reason. UWIC organizers say this practice has led to employees being fired for no good reason and, more often, discourages employees from voicing workplace concerns out of fear of retaliation.

Healthcare agencies throughout the nation have struggled with employee retention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago. Integral Care is no exception. The agency has also struggled to fill job vacancies that opened up during the pandemic, meaning the frontline clinicians and crisis workers who remain are carrying higher caseloads. A tightening budget with little help from state government has made it difficult for agency leadership to meet the labor union’s demands for better wages and benefits (last year the agency increased its minimum wage to $20 following a UWIC campaign).

All of these factors have contributed to a precarious labor environment within Integral Care, and they are also motivating UWIC’s push to switch to a “just cause” employment model – which is how other local government employers operate. “Under at-will employment, we can be terminated without any kind of due process, transparency, or even an explanation,” UWIC Vice President Aidan Chadwick told the Chronicle. “It also creates a workplace culture where potential whistleblower employees are often afraid to raise concerns or speak out because we have little protection against retaliation.”

UWIC is proposing a “just cause” framework that would require management to provide documented justification for terminating someone and provide a venue to appeal the firing with the support from a union representative, should the terminated employee desire. They are also asking the agency create and fund a new ombudsmen who would conduct hearings on employee suspensions and demotions, and conduct investigations into some workplace violations. The union is hoping that agency management will work with them on creating these new policies, but if they are unwilling, they hope the agency’s board of trustees will direct management to do it.

Integral Care already has a disciplinary model similar to this in which employees are gradually disciplined for infractions and coached to improve job performance, Chief Executive Officer Jeff Richardson told us. Richardson, who just wrapped up his second month as Integral Care’s new CEO, said he’s still learning about the agency’s current human resources policies and how they compare to what UWIC is proposing, but he’s ready to have a conversation with the union about it.

Whatever management and the union work out – better communication around the current policy, modification to it, or development of a new “just cause” framework – Richardson said it doesn’t serve Integral Care, or the vulnerable clients they serve, to fire people without good reason. “It’s not in our interest as an organization to fire people capriciously,” Richardson told us. “It hurts recruitment and retention. I’m eager to look at the policies we have now and talk about how they can be improved to the benefit of all our employees.”