BRENTWOOD — Pilgrim Psychiatric Center worker Paul Harris had almost given up on the possibility of career advancement when he finally received a letter from New York state appointing him as a Mental Health Therapy Aide 2 (MHTA2).

Harris and nine of his co-workers at the psychiatric center in Suffolk County were recently promoted to the MHTA2 title, which not only allows them career advancement, but new leadership opportunities at their worksite.

It all happened due to our union’s advocacy and persistence.

It took CSEA Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local officers five years to convince management that MHTA2s were needed on the floor to boost staffing levels and provide on-floor leadership to workers.

Ironically, a management tactic gave local officers the leverage they needed to prove that MHTA2s are necessary.

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local officers and new Mental Health Therapy Aide 2s meet at the local office to discuss their take on changes at the facility. From left to right, Mental Health Therapy Aide 2s Melva Knight and Paul Harris, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local Executive Vice President Christina Lebron, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local President Arnold “Rashad” Jones and Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local 1st Vice President Kathy Jean Romain.

“Management put surveillance cameras on some of the wards and the members weren’t happy about it,” said CSEA Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local President Arnold “Rashad” Jones. “I told members that we’re not the only ones being watched. Management’s policies are also being watched.”

CSEA Pilgrim Local leaders reviewed the camera footage with administrators and noted that some incidents could have been prevented with MHTA2s on site.

Opportunity leads to optimism

To be eligible for the Mental Health Therapy Aide 2 position, members must take the state Civil Service Paraprofessionals Exam, which is only offered every five years.

Along with the exam, the MHTA2 position has an extensive selection process. The new MHTA2s at Pilgrim were chosen for their consistent professionalism.

“They all have good time and attendance,” said Jones. “They were already showing good leadership skills and of course, they all scored high on the examination.”

The expansion of the mental health therapy aide position has shown other CSEA Pilgrim Psychiatric Center workers that there are career advancement opportunities, which has inspired many workers to work toward this goal.

“Members can see that there’s a future here now,” said Jones. “That’s something that has been missing at Pilgrim for a long time.”

The career advancement also brought on a stronger sense of responsibility and leadership to the new MHTA2s.

“It was really humbling to receive the letter and know that I had been chosen,” said Melva Knight, a MHTA2 at Pilgrim. “To be able to work in the same environment while integrating my new responsibilities to help my colleagues means a lot.”

“I feel far more accountable to my co-workers than I did before,” said Harris. “Now, my co-workers see me in a different light. I try to set an example for how to work together as a team to successfully care [for individuals].”

Bridging the gap

MHTA2s, often described as the glue that holds different departments together, frequently move between different units to provide much-needed assistance to other staff.

“I can go to different floors and relieve workers for a break,” said Knight. “Workers really appreciate our efforts to help. We’re trying to change the culture for the better.”

For many workers, it’s easier to approach their MHTA2s colleagues rather than management to discuss workplace concerns.

“My first week in my new position, I had people come up to me and tell me that they admire me and feel comfortable talking to me about certain problems, rather than their manager,” said Harris. “[In turn], my supervisor will also ask me what issues need to be addressed and what I feel the facility can do better. That’s really where Mental Health Therapy Aide 2s come in. We also make sure that the other therapy aides know the facility’s policies and we train new hires.”

Because MHTA2s are also on the front lines caring for individuals, they offer a firsthand account of what direct care workers need. This is why CSEA Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local officers push for the MHTA2s to be present at morning meetings with the nurses and upper management.

“It’s empowering to be in the meeting and to know that you have some authority to help make a difference in the workplace,” said Knight.

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Local officers are hoping that the success that they have had with the MHTA2s will inspire other facilities that provide direct care to individuals to duplicate their efforts.

“With our [state]administration and the help of our local officers, we know that the change that we want is possible because we’re seeing it happen,” said Harris.

— Wendi Bowie


About Author

Wendi Bowie is an award-winning journalist who has focused the majority of her career on covering Long Island news. Her efforts have earned her the Press Club of Long Island Media Award for Public Affairs and the Long Island Coalition for Fair Broadcasting Folio Award. Wendi was drawn to her current position as Communications Specialist for CSEA’s Long Island Region because it speaks to her strong desire to champion the rights of the common man and woman.

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