The No. 1 priority of state legislators before they adjourn April 20 should be addressing the staffing crisis at Maine’s two state psychiatric hospitals: Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

I ask all legislators to support the recommendations of retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who oversees the consent decree covering Maine’s mental health system, including the state psychiatric hospitals. Court Master Wathen’s priority is to achieve proper staffing levels at Riverview and Dorothea Dix. The key way to accomplish this is by addressing the employee recruitment and retention problems at each hospital.

Passing the bipartisan legislation, LD 1645, An Act to Address Employee Recruitment and Retention Issues at State Mental Health Institutions, would go a long way toward resolving the staffing issues raised by Court Master Wathen. As a front-line direct care worker, I urge legislators to support LD 1645.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, whose district includes Riverview, is sponsoring LD 1645. State Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, whose district includes Dorothea Dix, is a co-sponsor. LD 1645 provides recruitment and retention wage adjustments for the front-line direct care workers referenced in Court Master Wathen’s reports. This is emergency legislation, and for good reason: Understaffing at both hospitals has created critical safety problems harmful to both patients and staff.

On April 7, the Appropriations Committee voted 8-5 “ought to pass” on LD 1645. The Senate and House likely will vote on it this week. I am reaching out to my state senator and state representative in support of LD 1645. I hope others reach out to theirs.

As a direct care worker at Riverview, I see firsthand the difficulties caused by the hospital’s staffing shortages and its public employee recruitment and retention problem. That is why I testified March 21 in support of LD 1645.

I also testified April 1 in support of maintaining mental health services to Section 17 clients; my advocacy for Section 17 clients is in support of community mental health services as a way to prevent acute crises. Legislators are responding in a bipartisan and united manner. They need to show similar bipartisan support for LD 1645.

The ongoing staffing issue at the Riverview and Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospitals accounts for many problems that filter down through Maine’s mental health system. Chronic understaffing makes it difficult to meet the required amount of staff necessary to see to the needs of those for whom we are charged to care. The bare levels of staffing that Riverview operates on have a detrimental effect on the safety of both patients and staff. Staff often is left with the conundrum of providing the most basic of needs.

I personally have been pulled from mandatory Acuity Specialist trainings to fill in on the floor. The reality that is due to the low staffing levels, we are creating a dangerous environment that need not happen if Riverview were adequately staffed. Due to our historically high turnover, even when Riverview on paper has met its core staffing requirements, we are still unable to retain staff or we maintain core staff levels by pulling from other areas to meet staffing requirements.

When we are staffed properly and people are able to do their jobs as designed, it creates a much more therapeutic and safe environment for our patients and for staff. It is an all too rare, but welcome, event when we are able to more than meet the needs of our patients. I believe we need to focus on long-term staffing requirements instead of reaching our core requirements only in the short term. LD 1645 takes direct and positive action against the historically terrible staffing issues. LD 1645 provides a sound incentive to employee retention and strengthens the incentive to work in such a demanding facility.

Excessive mandatory overtime also is a chronic issue. Front-line workers at Riverview are frequently required to remain in the facility to maintain minimum staffing. I have stood with co-workers as they cried after being “mandated” because they are exhausted but forced to work another eight hours. This causes difficulties in employee retention and morale. This directly affects patient care.

There is a solution. Sen. Katz’s legislation, LD 1645, provides the wage adjustments necessary to recruit and retain the mental health workers necessary to ensure patients at Riverview and Dorothea Dix get they care they need. That’s why our state legislators need to support LD 1645.

Blair Fenning is an acuity specialist at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. He has worked in mental health care for 15 years. He is a member of the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union.