The problems of recruiting and retaining staff at Western State Hospital go well beyond money. Just look at the history of outrageous employment-discrimination cases.

Share story

IN the absence of effective reforms at Western State Hospital by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration, the state Legislature has spent $137 million over the last three years trying to prop up the psychiatric hospital. The administration’s management has been rebuked by the state Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court judge, federal auditors, mental-health advocates and countless family members of patients at the dysfunctional psychiatric institution.

It hasn’t worked.

Despite the money, civilly committed patients and criminal defendants have had to wait for weeks, even months, for admission. That causes patients in the throes of psychosis still to be boarded in hospital emergency rooms, despite a landmark 2014 state Supreme Court opinion intended to limit that inhumane practice.

The escape of two patients at the hospital last week adds a new outrage.

The root of many of these problems is a critical staffing crunch. As of last month, 137 permanent and 61 on-call jobs were vacant — 11 percent of the hospital’s jobs. There are simply not enough bodies to help patients recover.

One of the first places lawmakers should examine is the appalling pattern of workplace-discrimination lawsuits.”

With another fresh injection of $18 million this past legislative session, frustrated lawmakers also — wisely — set up a special committee to dive more deeply and look for solutions. If that sounds like a job for the executive branch, you’re right. But lawmakers have rightly become impatient with the Inslee administration.

One of the first places lawmakers should examine is the appalling pattern of workplace-discrimination lawsuits. If lawmakers wonder why it’s so hard to recruit and retain staff, consider the history.

Thirteen years ago, a union president at the hospital, Barrette Green, was accused of an outrageous pattern of sexual harassment. Ultimately 15 women came forward to report being fondled, harassed with locker-room boasts and forced into sex, even as complaints were ignored or mishandled by hospital management.

In the hospital’s view, Green was worthy of promotion to be the chief risk manager, before being fired. Ultimately, the hospital CEO also was fired, employee training overhauled and the state paid out more than $4 million for one of the biggest workplace-discrimination investigations in state history.

“Employees and supervisors alike describe rampant retaliation, favoritism and abuse of power,” according to a comprehensive report on the scandal. The state Department of Social and Health Services clearly needed to change the hospital’s culture.

Yet that didn’t happen. Complaints and lawsuits continue to pile up.

In the decade since the Barrette Green disaster, the state paid at least $2.3 million more to Western State workers for claims of retaliation after they claimed racial or sexual harassment or they reported workplace misconduct.

Just last month, a hospital employee, Michael Sekulic, won $260,000, including attorney fees, for a whistleblower case in which he said he was fired for reporting patients thrown against a wall or unnecessarily tackled.

But the most outrageous case involves a nurse named Christopher Boyd. He claimed retaliation after complaining about the sexual harassment of a female boss, who referred to Boyd as her “penis.” When he complained, the harasser herself was assigned to investigate Boyd’s workplace conduct. Another nurse, Veronica Gabriel, testified for Boyd at his trial in Tacoma in 2013. Boyd won, and the state paid $773,000, including attorney fees.

Yet within a month of that trial, the hospital moved to fire both Boyd and Gabriel on trumped-up charges. They sued for wrongful termination. The state last week settled Boyd’s second lawsuit for $550,000. Gabriel’s case is still pending.

No wonder it’s so hard to recruit and retain staff at Western State Hospital. That problem ultimately falls on patients, who stay longer at the institution and receive less treatment.

Lawmakers assigned to the new special oversight committee must push the Inslee administration for a radical culture change, and the hospital must finally deliver.