Research assistants at McLean Hospital in Belmont have unionized, seeking higher pay and systemic changes to a work environment that some describe as unsafe and inequitable. A group of 145 research assistants are scheduled to begin contract negotiations Monday.

They are the first employees to organize at the private psychiatric hospital, with a 68% vote in June to affiliate with AFSCME, a union that primarily represents government workers at the state, county and municipal levels.

McLean, the oldest hospital in New England, is renowned nationally for its groundbreaking neurological and clinical research and treatment programs. U.S News & World Report ranks it as the second-best hospital for psychiatry in the country.

“Prestige doesn’t pay the bills,” John Killoy, a spokesman for AFSCME, told GBH News. “They love the work that they do, but they can barely afford to pay their rent. That $15.20 starting wage is excluding individuals who can’t afford to apply — it’s an equity issue.”

Miranda Skurla, an organizer who worked at McLean until last June, said she took on other jobs while working as a research assistant for more than two years.

“This position really skews towards people who have the ability to live at home, whose parents can help with rent, or who don’t have student loans to pay back,” Skurla said. “It’s obviously really problematic in terms of increasing access for this position to a more diverse population, socioeconomically, racially, et cetera.”

Skurla, like many of the other unionizing research assistants, says she loves the work — but the pay is untenable and the hours are brutal.

“I think most people think of this position as an unpaid internship, and you have to kind of suck it up and go through it to get into grad school,” Skurla said. “But some people just cannot afford to suck it up for a few years, and I think that the whole culture of working as many hours as possible for as little money as possible, when you’re below a living wage, that’s when it really gets to be an issue.”

Administrative building at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Tori Bedford GBH News

In emails sent to staff members ahead of the June election, management warned that if a union is elected, “McLean will not be able to work with individual employees concerning their career and academic goals. McLean would be required by law to only deal with the union on workplace issues like salaries, benefits, schedules, promotions, time off requests, and working conditions,” one email reads. “We believe that using your own voice, expressing your own opinions and desires, and being heard directly by us is much more powerful and effective for our staff members.”

McLean management told employees that unionizing is not in the best interests of staff members, according to hospital Chief of Staff Adriana M. Bobinchock.

“We communicated to employees before the vote, and continue to believe that unionization is not the best choice for these employees at McLean,” Bobinchock said in a statement to GBH News. “Regardless of any allegations that may be set forth by the Research Assistants or the union in the context of the organizing or contract negotiation process, the Hospital remains dedicated to supporting the professional growth and success of each of our staff members, while advancing scientific research, education, and the highest quality mental health care.”

Research assistants at McLean are predominantly women in their twenties who are preparing for graduate programs, according to internal staffing data acquired by GBH News. They work in clinical settings, laboratories and research roles, contributing to projects such as the Biogen-funded study that led to the discovery of a drug to treat Alzheimer’s. The drug, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June, was the first new drug on the market for the disease in years.

Leah Cohen, a 25-year-old union organizer, was the lead research assistant in the Biogen Alzheimer’s study.

“We do really important research, and I really love McLean Hospital,” Cohen said. “We just really want it to be better. We want everyone who is working here to be supported and show up with their A-game, not have to take on other jobs.”

McLean hospital campus, Belmont, Mass.
Tori Bedford GBH News

As a clinical research assistant in the hospital’s Geriatric Psychiatry Research Program, Cohen worked with research participants “for months or years, and we can see how much we mean to them,” she said. “They get so much support from the institution and hold it in very high regard. I would love to feel like McLean has treated me as well as it treats its patients or research subjects.”

Some research assistants interact directly with psychiatric patients, but without the standard training offered to clinical staff, according to Cohen. “It’s really interesting work, but can be highly stressful,” she said.

Others are tasked with handling live animals, dissecting tissue in brains and other organs that may carry disease or other pathogens and handling the bulk of the hospital’s administrative research side.

Cohen says the union plans to negotiate for clearer and better-enforced protocols for safety and training, something that multiple research assistants told GBH News has been an issue in their work.

“In the inpatient units, you have patients who are in acute distress and really severe episodes of mental illness,” Skurla said. “Being a research assistant, you're often put in situations where you do not have the knowledge, training or the support to provide the right support to the research subject and do what you need to do.

“On top of that,” she continued, “you’re like, well, I’m making $15 an hour to be completely over my head. That doesn’t feel very good.”

Jade Desmarais spent four months this year as a technical research assistant at McLean’s “Brain Bank,” also known as the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. Desmarais, a 25-year-old working on her associate degree in funeral services, says safety training became a serious concern during her time at McLean.

“Sometimes the attitude is, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a risk of the job,’” Desmarais said. “But there weren’t steps taken to ensure that everyone was trained on safety procedures to the point where you didn’t have to think about it, where safety was really the emphasis and nothing was downplayed as less dangerous.”

Unlike many of her peers, Desmarais was salaried at around $40,000 annually — but she says the higher pay was due to being on-call and working hours that far exceeded a full-time schedule, without being eligible for overtime pay.

“Being on call, you certainly don’t have much of life, which makes the pay that much more painful," Desmarais said. “You’re spending all your time working, and you’re not necessarily being compensated for it.”