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Federal Mediator Steps In To Healthcare Union Dispute

Western Montana Mental Health Center headquarters in Missoula
Eric Whitney

A federal mediator is stepping in to help arbitrate a dispute between a new union of recently laid-off mental health care workers and their Missoula-based employer.

Today, the union and Western Montana Mental Health Center confirmed they will meet Tuesday.

The organization's adult case managers and community-based aides unionized this fall, fearing layoffs as the state government moved to cut Medicaid provider rates to deal with the ongoing state budget crisis. 

Since then, they have not reached a bargaining agreement, and layoffs for more than 40 workers were announced. 

Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski is an adult case manager who will be out of a job at the start of the new year. She’s also a union steward. She plans to file for unemployment soon and hopes a federal mediator will help push a bargaining agreement forward after the previous stalemate.

“We’re hoping that they will explain: This is what bargaining is. You have to put stuff on the table and you have to go back and forth and you come to an agreement,” she said.

Nguyen-Wishneski and other union members say they want a severance package, or better yet, their jobs back.

The CEO of Western Montana Mental Health Center has told Montana Public Radio that the organization is doing what it needs to in response to state budget cuts, and that it doesn’t have the resources to offer severance packages.

A spokesperson for Western says it hopes the mediator will help the union better understand the impact of the state cuts for their organization and other Medicaid providers across the state. 

Western Montana Mental Health Center is not alone in laying off workers in response to state budget cuts. Four organizations that provide case management for people with developmental disabilities also plan to lay off around 70 workers this spring.

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