On Sept. 28, psychology doctoral student Jason Edgar was attending a seminar at his internship site in Syracuse, NY, when his training director shared some distressing news: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was considering laying off 3,500 temporary workers who were part of a professional, scientific and technical union that also represented 22 state-paid psychology interns, including Edgar.
The layoffs were the result of a standoff between Cuomo and the union, which had voted down the terms of a contract that included provisions to halt raises for three years and increase the amount workers had to pay for their health insurance. Edgar's training director thought the interns might be protected because of their educational status. But two days later, Edgar received a letter informing him that the funding for his internship would be terminated on Oct. 19. "That's when the panic kicked in," says Edgar, who had relocated from California.
APA learned of the problem and sprang into action. APA sent a letter to Cuomo and key state officials, explaining that the internships rested on a contract between the students' doctoral programs and the training sites; that students would be profoundly affected financially and professionally if they were laid off; and that New Yorkers would lose valuable mental health services and the possibility of quality permanent workers if the interns lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students was working on ways to reach as many students and psychologists as possible. With the help of APA Executive Director for Education Cynthia Belar, PhD, and Senior Policy Advisor Ellen Garrison, PhD, APAGS Associate Executive Director Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, drafted an action alert that went out to some 8,000 students, 16,000 members of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers and 9,000 members of the New York State Psychological Association, asking recipients to contact New York residents they knew and ask them to prod Cuomo into protecting the interns. APPIC Chair Eugene D'Angelo, PhD, and NYSPA Executive Director Tracy Russell lent their muscle to the effort, sending the alert through listservs, e-newsletters and other online formats.
"It basically went viral," says El-Ghoroury. "People were emailing anyone they knew who would advocate for these students."
Happily, the resolution was both swift and positive. On Oct. 25, New York State Commissioner of Mental Health Michael F. Hogan, PhD, announced the state would continue to support this year's internship program. (In keeping with the state's budget woes, however, some of the sites have already decided not to fund interns for next year, according to APPIC.)
The other employees got to keep their jobs as well, as the union agreed to the terms of a new contract on Nov. 4 and Cuomo reinstated their jobs.
Among other things, the effort demonstrates the power of collaborative grassroots advocacy, says Garrison. "The governor's decision to reinstate the psychology internships—even before the union vote—shows what a coordinated, compelling message among psychology constituents can do."
For Edgar's part, the incident was a sober reminder of what psychology students face in a bad economy. And he's grateful for the support from organized psychology. "We felt like we weren't alone in this," he says.
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