Nursing Home Workers Authorize May 8 Strike At 40 Facilities

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Above photo: Members of the SEIU Healthcare Illinois union cheer as a motorist honks during their news conference outside the Alden Wentworth nursing home on West 69th Street in Chicago on Monday, April 27, 2020. Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune.

Workers at 40 nursing homes in Illinois, nearly all in the Chicago area, said Monday they have set a strike date for May 8, as contract negotiations come to a head while coronavirus cases are hitting a peak.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois stated that it represents more than 10,000 workers at 100 nursing homes. The workers do not include doctors or nurses, but encompass certified nursing assistants and other support staff. They are negotiating with the Illinois Association of Healthcare Facilities on a new contract to succeed the current one, which expires April 30.

The list of 40 homes targeted by workers could increase in the coming days, officials said. Many of the workers are making little more than Chicago’s minimum wage of $13 an hour for “backbreaking,” essential work taking care of society’s most vulnerable members, said Shaba Andrich, vice president for nursing homes. The union is seeking at least $15 an hour across the board for the workers, plus hazard pay for working during the coronavirus pandemic.

“They were already struggling to take care of their families,” Andrich said. “We’re asking nursing homes to step up and do what’s right.”

Workers also demanded improved staffing, better training and more personal protective equipment to guard against COVID-19, all of which, they said, have been sadly lacking. Some workers said they were forced to use one mask for an entire eight-hour shift, instead of multiple masks recommended under health guidelines.

The association announced that it offered an 11% one-year pay hike, stable employee health insurance contributions, earlier access to sick days, paid sick time during the pandemic in addition to contractual sick leave, creation of a training fund, and more for certified nursing assistants, dietary, activity, laundry and housekeeping employees.

In a letter to state lawmakers, Bob Molitor, CEO of the Alden Network of nursing homes and an association board member, described the homes’ offer as fair and equitable. “We sincerely hope the union is not using this once-in-a-lifetime crisis to incite a walk-out and put our seniors at even greater risk,” he wrote.

The state released figures over the weekend that showed a dramatic jump in deaths of people who live or work at long-term care facilities — to 625, more than double what was reported a week ago.

The latest figures compiled by the state showed that, as of Friday, at least 278 facilities had 4,298 cases of residents or workers testing positive.

The workers also asked for a 50% increase in pay for hazardous duty during the pandemic, an additional 80 hours off and continued health insurance for COVID-19 related illness, and access to testing and any emergency benefits for essential workers.

Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, said the number of nursing homes targeted by the strike will continue to grow in coming days. He said the 2,300 potentially striking members were putting their lives on the line to care for residents, but were not willing to die for minimum wages.

The facilities targeted for a potential strike include 10 in the Alden Network, seven under the Aperion Care umbrella and four Symphony Care Network facilities.

“We believe that this is a public health crisis,” Kelley said. “It isn’t enough to simply say they are heroes. We need to show them that they are heroes.”

Tainika Somerville said she was a certified nursing assistant at the Bridgeview Healthcare Center in the southwest suburbs, until she was fired this month after asking for hazard pay and complaining about a lack of adequate staffing and protective equipment.

“We’re at the point where we have to strike to save lives,” she said.

Martha Peck, the administrator of the Bridgeview home, responded in an email that she would not comment on employment matters, but said officials there have not disciplined or terminated anyone “due to PPE use or COVID-19 concerns in the community.”

The home has had appropriate protective equipment or CDC-approved substitutes, and is offering extra pay for nurses and assistants, she added.

“We are adhering to the directions of the CDC and health care professionals,” she wrote, “to maintain a safe environment for all.”

Last week, state lawmakers sent a letter to the Illinois Association of Healthcare Facilities, noting that last year the General Assembly increased reimbursement rates for nursing homes by $240 million, with assurances that much of the money would be spent on direct care staff.

The lawmakers wrote that they are still waiting for that to happen, even as the nursing home industry is asking for millions more dollars during the spread of the coronavirus.

“Workers deserve respect and dignity,” stated the letter, which was signed by 20 state senators and 36 representatives. “This starts with adequate personal protective equipment, a level of paid sick time that you would expect for yourself, and wages that don’t keep employees living in poverty.”

In response, the nursing home association wrote in a letter that the rate increase allowed some of its members to increase pay and staffing.

“We have done everything in our power to secure scarce but necessary PPE,” Molitor wrote, adding that a strike would “jeopardize” the state’s most vulnerable people.

In 2017, a strike at 53 Chicago-area nursing homes was averted hours before it was set to begin. At that time, officials at SEIU, which stands for Service Employees International Union, said they “won” the dispute, with raises of up to 40% or 50% from an average of $11 an hour. The nursing homes agreed that the contract provided significant wage and staff increases.

The nursing homes had plans in place to have nurses perform duties typically done by nursing assistants, such as bathing or turning bedridden patients, and having management fill in or move employees between locations.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported that the state has about 1,200 long-term care facilities serving more than 100,000 residents, from the young to the elderly.