The State of Florida is working people to death

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Hawlen Ebanks, a veteran state employee at Sunland Center in Marianna drove in to work on her 85th day straight without a day off — and her eighth day in a row of 16 hour shifts. As the thoroughly exhausted Mrs. Ebanks entered the grounds of the Sunland facility, she lost control of her vehicle and crashed into a tree. The 64 year old Senior Residential Unit Specialist was airlifted to a local hospital where she was placed into a coma. Tragically, she was pronounced dead a few days later.

This should never have happened.

AFSCME has fought to address unsafe working conditions at State Hospitals in Florida for years. On top of the stressful and often dangerous environments employees deal with daily, they've endured working non-stop during hurricanes and their aftermaths, breathing black mold in the workplace, being physically attacked by the residents they care for, and now, repeatedly being asked by their supervisors to work insanely long hours day after day often with no choice, leaving them mentally drained without a single day off in months. 

This is the definition of abuse and neglect on the part of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. “There is no doubt that our members that do the crucial job of caring for residents at this facility are being pushed to their physical limits,” said AFSCME Florida President Vicki Hall. "This is a continuing problem and we demand a full investigation."

Tallulah Thomas, President of AFSCME Local 1363 which represents workers at Sunland Center and Chatahoochee State Hospital, says the contract violations and abuse of our members is widespread. "Hawlen Ebanks should be alive today spending time with her family over the holidays," she said. "She was an amazingly dedicated employee of seventeen years who was committed to this facility and it's residents. She deserved to be treated better."

"She would give you the shirt off her back," said Donald Bailey, Mrs. Ebanks longtime friend and co-worker. "That's the kind of person she was. She was in this profession to help people. She loved helping people." Mr. Bailey worked with Mrs. Ebanks for most of her career at Sunland Center. They both transfered to Sunland Center from South Florida in 2004. 

A review of Mrs. Ebanks timesheets revealed that she worked every day for at least 85 days straight without a single day off — an extreme violation of AFSCME Local 1963’s contract with APD. The contract stipulates that the employer can not force an employee to work 16 hour shifts consecutively without making a good faith effort to provide at least 16 hours off between shifts. "We believe that APD's understaffing and policies contributed to the death of Mrs. Ebanks." said AFSCME Florida Representative Cris Serrano. "We want to put an end to this abuse for the safety and well being of all State employees.

AFSCME Local 1963 represents hundreds of employees at Sunland Center and the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. The Union has clashed with APD in the past over health and safety violations after an investigation by federally funded watchdog organization Disability Rights Florida concluded that mold and air quality issues were a persistent health risk for residents and staff more than a year after Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle. Several employees had to seek medical treatment as a result of APD's neglect. 

The crucial jobs employees at these facilities perform was exemplified in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael as staff continued to care for over 1,000 residents when the hospital was severely damaged and cut off by the storm. Left with only emergency radios to communicate with first responders, AFSCME members helped direct delivery of supplies and food which had to be air dropped in after the hospital was left inaccessible.  

AFSCME Florida is actively seeking Special Risk Classification for these employees through the Florida Legislature as recognition of the the dedication and seriousness with which employees take their duties even under the worst of circumstances. The reclassification bill returning next month for the 2021 Florida legislative session would designate workers at Florida’s mental facilities as Special Risk Class within the Florida Retirement System-a long overdue acknowledgment of the sacrifices these public service workers make daily on behalf of all Floridians.

Media Coverage on this issue: