Bob Black and Krystina O’Sullivan are two Shalom House employees who are part of the current unionization effort. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Employees at Portland-based Shalom House on Tuesday announced their intent to unionize, adding to a growing number of organizing attempts at Maine nonprofits and social service agencies.

Shalom House is a nonprofit that works with people who have a history of mental health challenges and homelessness. It offers supported housing in group homes and independent apartments, in addition to administering housing vouchers and providing case management.

Shalom House Workers United on Friday submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to form a union with the Maine Service Employees Association, and also announced their plans to the organization’s management. The board will determine the time and method of the union election.

The union would include 150 residential and clinical services staff who work full time, part time and per diem. Their petition includes case managers, facilities and custodial staff, living skills specialists, residential support workers, vocational specialists, events coordinators, housing voucher specialists, community integration workers, relief staff and nurses. In a news release, the workers said “a strong majority,” including a supermajority of full-time workers, have indicated their support for unionizing.

“This is about making the bigger picture changes that we need to protect what we love about working at Shalom House, and to have a voice in decisions that deeply impact our lives at work …” the employees said Friday in their statement to Shalom House management. “We know that our community has our backs, and would be so excited for Shalom House management to take a collaborative, good-faith approach to our organizing.”

The workers requested that Shalom House commit to neutrality during the election process. Rick Finberg, an attorney who represents Shalom House, said the organization is still gathering information and has not yet taken a position on that question. However, Finberg also said the nonprofit does not believe forming a union is “the best path forward.”


“We strongly believe in Shalom House’s social service mission and we think our employees believe in the mission too,” he said. “Though we do not agree that unionization is the best way to meet the needs of both our clients and our employees, we respect that the employees have the right to make this decision – hopefully, after considering differing views. We will respect the decision our employees make.”

Finberg said Shalom House is funded almost entirely by the state and federal government, a budget reality that would factor into any discussion of pay.

“We also think that it is important for our employees to be fully educated about what unionization means and does not mean,” he said. “During the next few weeks, we will provide information so that when employees cast their secret ballot vote, they will feel confident that they have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”


Organizers said they want to form a union to improve pay and working conditions for employees, which will also improve the care clients receive.

Krystina O’Sullivan, 23, of Yarmouth, is a residential support worker in a transitional housing program in Portland. She helps clients access their medications, schedule and attend appointments, develop skills such as doing laundry and generally prepare to move to another group home or an independent apartment.


The work can be taxing. O’Sullivan said she started at Shalom House as per diem relief staff and found a second job to make ends meet. She struggled with burnout and eventually abandoned her side gig. She currently works full time at Shalom House. She said she wants employees to be able to take better care of themselves outside of work.

“I can see the burnout that people are facing and some training areas that could change for the better,” she said. “I see the struggle of finding people to cover when somebody has a lot of time they need to take off, whether that be for a surgery or a vacation. I think we could find a common voice with Shalom House and get to the bottom of those core issues.”

Bob Black, 31, of Portland, is a relief staffer who usually picks up five or six shifts per week. He echoed the concerns about burnout and financial stress, and he said clients suffer when the staff is in flux and programs lack stability.

“A living wage would mean folks not having to work two to three jobs or excessive overtime just to pay rent and basic living expenses,” he said. “It would mean we could spend more time with our families and pursue our interests outside of work, making us healthier, happier and more productive advocates for the clients we serve. Several of my coworkers talk about barely getting to see their young children because of their work schedule and the necessity of working multiple jobs to support their families.”

Shalom House is currently hiring residential support workers for $18.02 per hour (or $18.59 per hour if they have a mental health rehabilitation technician certification), according to job listings on

Other nonprofit employees to form unions in recent years include those at Preble Street, Planned Parenthood, Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine and the ACLU of Maine.

Sam Saucier is an educator at SASSMM, where the management voluntarily recognized the union without an election. Saucier serves on the committee that is currently bargaining its first contract. She said people who work in social services are talking more about unionization in part because they have experienced and witnessed significant burnout in their field.

“Social services always have to fight for funding and fight to stay on its feet,” said Saucier. “It’s a big problem in the model in general that trickles down to those of us who are doing the work day in and day out.

“We just see how essential our work is,” she added. “There’s a huge lack of services in Maine, so we know it is vital that we continue to have them. When working conditions are not conducive for people to stay in the long term, turnover is a huge issue. … There’s a connection between workers being able to sustain themselves and the essential work that they’re doing and actually being able to provide these services.”

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