Quake counselors in pay crisis
Mental health workers hired to help victims in November have yet to get their first check
HILO » State mental health counselors who have not been paid since being hired in November will have to wait almost two more weeks before getting paychecks on Jan. 19, state Deputy Health Director Michelle Hill said yesterday.
"Can you believe that? That's 11 days we have to wait," said Vicki Fiege, a nurse who works in the state program for people with emotional problems resulting from the Oct. 15 earthquakes that affected the Big Island.
Fiege is one of about 35 workers who were promised a paycheck before Christmas but still have not been paid. The program was started with a $283,000 grant to the state from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"There are a lot of elderly people who were very shaken by this (the earthquakes)," said Janet Curley, head of a Hilo-based team with five mental health professionals.
People who thought they were going to die during the earthquakes might go into a panic when any similar shaking takes place, such as vibrations from a helicopter overhead, a big truck or even someone hitting a table, Curley said.
But while five teams on the Big Island helped people with emotional problems from the quakes, they were suffering their own financial problems.
"Our rent is overdue. Our phone bill is overdue. I can't afford the gas money to go out and do the job I'm supposed to do," said Fiege, who drives up to 400 miles a week for the job.
Fiege had her work and finances carefully planned, quitting one job to take the earthquake counseling job, then planning to get another job when the counseling ended.
Curley works as a nurse on call at Hilo Hospital. She turned down day-by-day job offers because she liked the earthquake work, she said. But not Fiege, Curley or anyone else in the program got paid.
Hill, who heads the state Behavioral Health Administration, said she learned about people not being paid last week. "I did intervene to be sure people got paid. The paperwork was delayed. It was an unfortunate delay within our own department," she said.
With people hired in November, "to these people we owe the greatest apology," she said.
The program was to have ended Dec. 22, she said, but enough funding was available to extend it to Jan. 22. She does not know if there will be another extension beyond that.
People have mentioned emergency paychecks, but at best those would pay people two or three days before the regular Jan. 19 pay date, Hill said.
Department official Wayne Law is expected to discuss the situation with employees today in Waimea.
"So we have to spend gas money to go up there to listen to him explain?" Fiege asked. "Tell him to bring money," she said.