Hopewell Health Centers employees form agency’s first union

Therapists at a Hopewell Health Centers location in Athens formed a union last month—the first group of Hopewell employees to do so.

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Therapists and case managers at a Hopewell Health Centers location in Athens formed a union last month — the first group of Hopewell employees to do so. 

“When we won our union, it was pure joy and excitement,” said Neena VanCoppenolle, a child and adolescent therapist at Hopewell and one of the main organizers of the union drive. “If we had good turnout, we knew we were gonna win, and we had good turnout.”


The union represents about 30 Hopewell behavioral health workers at the nonprofit’s Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services location on Columbus Road in Athens. The union achieved recognition from the National Labor Relations Board on Nov. 3, after a union election held Oct. 26. According to the NLRB, 22 of 27 eligible employees cast ballots, with 14 voting in favor of unionization and eight voting against.

Hopewell Health Centers employed 911 people in 2019, according to its most recent available 990 filing. The nonprofit has locations throughout Athens County and southeast Ohio.

The Hopewell union is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Ohio Council 8, which also represents employees at Ohio University, O’Bleness Memorial Hospital, Athens City Schools and others throughout the region.

Workplace concerns

VanCoppenolle said primary issues that motivated Hopewell behavioral health workers to organize for a union included unreasonable case loads and productivity standards, as well as low pay and a lack of transparency in decision-making.

“Oftentimes we are not treated as the essential employees that we are,” VanCoppenolle said. “This area is incredibly underserved, and without our services, there are so many kids that would continue to fall through the cracks — who would never get the chance… to have their mental health taken seriously.”

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In addition to improving pay, benefits and transparency in decision making, VanCoppenolle said they hope contract negotiations will result in behavioral health workers “not being judged based on the quantity, but rather the quality of our work.”

Working conditions have led behavioral health workers to leave Hopewell, said Heather Leeper, a child and adolescent therapist who has worked there for 15 years. 

“I have watched so many quality professionals leave the agency,” Leeper said. “I think if our voices could have been heard — I think if we could have been valued — I think a lot of these people would have stayed. It’s really hard to see that happen, and it’s really sad for our clients to have lost such good providers.”

Leeper, who primarily provides trauma treatment, said she hopes unionization will help her see the respect needed to do her job well.

“Hopefully, unionization will help me to be seen as a vital professional, but also provide me the care that I need to continue to provide quality trauma treatment to my kiddos,” Leeper said. “They deserve that.”

Olivia Bower, an initial leader of the union drive, left her job at Hopewell during the campaign because she was frustrated with her job. Bower, now a bereavement counselor at OhioHealth, said she organized at Hopewell to ensure “future employees would not have the experience that I did.” 

“I wanted to make sure that we created a culture and an environment that would let people stay and be more sustainable for the actual providers themselves,” Bower said.

The union drive

A group of coworkers came together in November 2021 to begin discussing issues in their workplace, Bower said. That core group began outreach to other coworkers to discuss unionization in December.

“Just making sure everyone’s on the same page with the things that are possible and how you can get there — I think that’s really important,” Bower said.

VanCoppenolle said the unionization process was smooth because of the time employees spent talking to one another and sharing concerns. 

VanCoppenolle said, “It really took off, and we started talking to more and more people, and it seemed that we had a very overwhelming majority in the very beginning,” she said.

Hopewell management learned of the organization campaign after employees filed for a union election, VanCoppenolle said. “They obviously disagreed and did not want us to form our union. However, we were able to and it was a fairly smooth process.”

Hopewell CEO Mark Bridenbaugh did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.

Although Hopewell’s management disagreed about the need for a union, the newly formed union will seek a collaborative relationship with management in contract negotiations, said AFSCME Ohio Council 8 Assistant Communications Director Namita Waghray.

Negotiations will follow leadership elections among union employees. Waghray said AFSCME hopes leadership elections and contract negotiations will all be complete within the next year, although “there is no typical timeline.”

Though the union represents only a small number of total Hopewell employees, organizers said they hope their unionization inspires their colleagues at other locations.

“My hope is now that the other Hopewell sites have seen us pull together and push forward, they see it’s possible for them to have a voice as well and that they can do this too,” Leeper said. “So I hope to see other sectors do this as well.”

Further reading: Hopewell therapists paid less than state average despite agency’s financial strength

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that case managers, in addition to therapists, are members of the new union at Hopewell Health Centers.

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