Members Helping Members

February 25, 2014

On November 10, 2013, union representatives from twelve SMART local unions from around the country gathered together in Philadelphia, PA, to take part in a week-long training program. The training kicked off a pilot program designed to help union members and their families who are experiencing various forms of personal crisis. Once in place, the Union Member Assistance Coordinator, or UMAC, program will form a network of compassionate, respected, and competently trained union representatives who work together to assist our members and their families find assistance for struggles with depression, substance abuse and other mental health related issues.Union representatives assist members daily with issues such as travel pay or jurisdictional assignments, but these are relatively minor concerns when compared with a union member in personal crisis. The current recession that SMART members have been clawing out of has left an indelible mark on many of our members, and we thought: “Couldn’t we be doing more?”Many SMART local unions have contracted with third party Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which provide necessary professional help, but we needed to do more than just pass along an 800 number.
SMART Director of Education Chris Carlough put together a training program that was originally developed by Bobby Bonds, a specialist in the mental health profession from IQOL, LLC Consultants Philadelphia. Nationally recognized as a leader in crisis intervention, Bobby Bonds has trained more than 25,000 lay-professionals, volunteers, and mental health professionals in the United States and Europe to deal with workplace and family crisis interventions. “Bobby’s association with the transportation industry and the transportation trade unions spans a period of over 25 years. The majority of those years, Bobby has dedicated his career to developing and administering helping programs dealing with all aspects of members’ and their family’s well-being,” Carlough stated.
SMART predecessor organizations SMWIA and UTU have an impressive history with peer and member assistance programs. Today’s Union Member Assistance Coordinator program offers assistance and support for every facet of crisis that our members face, living the true meaning of “union family.” The coordinators in the UMAC program have close ties to members on and off the job. They see attitudes and behaviors as they develop and are therefore in a better position to detect a problem and take early action. As business agents, they have already earned the respect and trust of members and the union leadership. Their credibility, mixed with compassion and a deep understanding of a member’s situation, makes for a powerful combination that cannot be offered by any other professional.
The core components that comprise UMAC training are: Confidentiality, Communication, Interpersonal Skills, Introspection of Oneself, Assessment of Crisis, Ethical Responsibility, Relapse and Follow-up, and Navigating through Health Care Plans.
The UMAC education program includes both theoretical knowledge and practice of basic skills necessary for crisis interventions. There are three distinct areas UMACs will play a vital role at SMART:
• Early Intervention—The UMAC recognizes the signs and symptoms of a variety of substance abuse and mental health problems. The UMAC will offer “emotional first aid” and develop a proactive intervention to help members deal with the problem. UMACs are always searching for ways to help the member find the best solution. The UMACs remain visible and accessible, and will demonstrate their concern around quality of life issues when a member or a member’s family is experiencing a crisis. The UMAC tries to help the local by helping the member identify a problem before it reaches a serious “crisis stage,” decreasing the hardship, complexity and consequences associated with problems left unchecked. By advocating earlier for the member, the UMAC helps avoid employer discipline, family complications, and disassociation with other members in the local.
Understanding Member Benefit Plans—UMACs will be able to identify appropriate effective resources and direct members to help within the member’s eligible health plan. UMACs will network and have the ability to augment a member’s mental health plan with other supporting social services when necessary. Today’s mental health benefit plans are confusing and often prove difficult to navigate. Finding the appropriate treatment provider can become frustrating and exacerbates an already difficult situation. Many health plans have restrictions and only offer access to limited in-network providers. By understanding these constraints, UMACs will help the member search for all available resources and determine the best option for their specific needs.
Follow-up—UMACs will be able to support the member when returning back to work and to assist in coordinating the member’s continuing care plan for a successful continuation of their recovery. Once a member completes their initial treatment, their re-integration back into their home and work life can offer some steep obstacles. The therapeutic value of one union member understanding and helping another union member is without parallel. This important support is often times the difference between a successful recovery and relapse. The UMAC can direct members to additional resources and provide them with the positive support and reinforcement every member needs in the early stages of ongoing recovery.
Core Skill Sets for a UMAC
• High credibility within the local
• Strong interpersonal and attentive listening skills
• Natural desire to help others
• Preferred elected union officer or agent
• Willingness to learn and availability of time
Program Goals
• Create direct access to union resources. “Promoted by members for members.”
• Establish a trusted gatekeeper for information/support and resources. “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”
• Provide confidential nonjudgmental union services to members. “Members who judge don’t matter, and members who matter don’t judge.”
• Heighten awareness and attention to health issues.
• Increase efficient utilization of eligible contracted benefit plans.
• Enhance the quality of life for SMART members.
UMAC Objectives
• Reduce relapse occurrences through case management, personal care, and follow-up.
• Provide broader access to member benefit plans through established relationships and trust.
• Inspire, incentivize, and motivate the member into positive lifestyle changes.
• Reduce the risk of a troubled member negatively impacting the workplace or home by creating a culture of positive and constructive intervention.
Every day we are working to make life more prosperous for our members. To know that we will also be there when our members are experiencing personal difficulties is comforting and very much appreciated. I applaud our business agents’ willingness to build for our organization this network of helpers. Their work will enhance our solidarity as a union and reflect our purpose as a caring organization in the truest spirit of unionism. The main reason most people seek help from a professional is not because they have a “problem” that has become insurmountable, but because the social supports in their social circles are no longer accessible or willing to provide the needed assistance.
An important element in crisis intervention is remembering that crisis intervention is NOT psychotherapy. While it certainly contains psychotherapeutic elements, it is not therapy as practiced by licensed mental health clinicians. It may be thought of as a form of emotional first-aid. Thus, as physical first-aid is to the practice of medicine, crisis intervention is to the practice of psychotherapy.
“Just trying to get caught up after that intense week of training. It was a little overwhelming at times but worth every minute. I learned a lot and will be a better brother and agent because of it.„
Bob Greiner, Local 12 Business Representative
“I think the UMAC program is very good and all business agents should take the training.„
John Chase, Local 10 Business Representative
“The best potential benefit of the UMAC program is instructing the union leadership in how to get better at getting our members to take advantage of the resources that are already available.„
Buck Paulsrud, Local 10 Metro Apprentice Coordinator “The UMAC program will help us help our members through difficult times. Agents are, a lot of times, the first and last lines of defense in helping out our members.„
Dave Holzer, Local 10 Business Representative
“The notion of union brotherhood implies a sense of family. A sense of family implies a group of people who watch out for and help each other. That is what the UMAC program is all about.”