Earlier this month, over 1,000 nursing home workers gathered at Alden Wentworth, a rehabilitation and healthcare center on the South Side of Chicago. They weren’t there to work. This facility was just 1 of the 11 nursing homes they visited in the area to protest their rights to fair wages.
The protest was a regional effort to call attention to the lack of pay, advancement opportunities, respect, and job satisfaction that often comes with the job. After months of negotiations with and complaints lodged against for-profit nursing home owners, their staff members are still seeing no change in this level of treatment.
In a press conference that day, Gregory Kelley, Executive Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and campaign leader, warned nursing home owners that an ultimatum was imminent. “We bargain for the last time on April 27,” he said. “We’re hopeful … that we’ll get a settlement; but if we don’t, we are prepared for a strike.”
Sure enough, that bargain came, and nursing home workers are now stepping up their efforts.
Workers Gearing Up for Their Largest Attack to Date
According to Kelley, Chicago nursing home owners have 1 last chance to normalize wages and staffing by May 4, else 5,000 workers will strike across 57 nursing homes. This will constitute roughly half of the 10,000 Chicago-area workers his union represents, and the largest nursing home strike in U.S. history.
Both Kelley and those who have agreed to be part of the initiative recognize the dilemma of striking while living paycheck to paycheck. Further lack of staffing may also endanger residents’ health. However, they say, these workers are willing to fight to improve the situation before it gets any worse.
“It’s a hardship now, even without a strike, but our workers have made the decision,” Kelley said.
In March, Chicago nursing home owners came under fire for operating understaffed and illegally discharging patients. This spurred the State House committee to revise a loophole in nursing home staffing legislation.
But these owners were already in SEIU Healthcare’s bad books. The organization and its members have been fighting unsuccessfully to negotiate a new contract to improve the quality of staffing and patient care for over a year. These are nursing home owners, after all, who actively work to keep staffing and wages low despite receiving $1 Billion in annual revenue.
“I am proud to stand up with nursing home workers today in their fight for respect and fair wages,” said Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia. “Theirs is a job that takes heart and soul every day and improves the lives of our most vulnerable family members. Yet nursing home workers, the majority of whom are women of color, are among the lowest paid workers in the state.”
Why Are Working Conditions So Poor?
Unfortunately, nursing home workers all over the country experience this same substandard pay, chronic lack of staffing, and abysmally high staff turnover.
Take pay, for example. According to PayScale’s national data, licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), and certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) can expect to earn an hourly rate of around $19-26. Certified nurse assistants (CNAs), another prevalent role in nursing homes, can’t expect much more than $11.
Understaffing is also a major problem, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, and 1 of several factors that contribute to adverse events in nursing homes.
Last year, Health Services Insights published a report that supports this point, calling for the need to raise minimum staffing standards. This was after finding that half of U.S. nursing homes have a resident-to-staff ratio of around 11 to 1 during labor intensive shifts. The study also found that staffing consistency and quality is “strongly” associated with quality: Thus, the result of an undersized workforce is severely low quality of care.
Despite this, nursing home owners continue to force their employees to raise families on low wages. They largely discriminate and exploit against minority groups, and stretch them as far as they can in high-stress environments. Essentially, they keep hardworking families in poverty and their facilities in disrepair – unconcerned with care quality – for the sake of lining their own pockets.
Protecting Patients with Safe Staffing and Good Jobs
It’s clear that, by failing to provide for their workers, nursing home owners are putting the health and safety of both employees and residents at risk. Speaking of negotiations with nursing home owners, Kelley expressed his concern for the industry going forward.
“Obviously, we are rejecting [their proposal to reduce workers’ wages to below minimum wage]. If you’re going to pay nursing home workers – who, again, are dealing with the sick and the elderly – less than minimum wage, how do you even take care of folks?” he said. “You just won’t have the staff to do it. And so workers are overworked and understaffed, and they’re severely underpaid.”
Indeed, when nursing facilities do not have enough staff on hand to look after the vulnerable and elderly, their patients are more likely to experience medical mistakes or neglect. In many cases, staff members’ unhappiness can even lead them to commit abusive acts out of frustration.
Nursing home abuse amounts to a very real epidemic, injuring and killing thousands of residents every year. Studies estimate that as much as 30 percent of the nation’s nursing homes accommodate victims of abuse, with still more unreported. This has meant that nursing home residents and their families are given little choice in who they entrust with critical or long-term care.
Can the Strikes Help?
To turn this situation on its head, we must make nursing home owners accountable. Their tunnel-vision corporate interest is the sole cause for shortchanging elders of the care they need.
It is unclear yet whether the Chicago strike, due to begin on May 4, will finally get the attention of owners in the area – although, according to Kelley, it will continue indefinitely. Several nursing homes have said they already have contingency plans in place for loss of staff, and promise that their residents will be well cared for.
One, in charge of operations at Villa Healthcare, Illinois, added:
“In an industry that is in dire need of payment reform due to underfunding, we want to take this opportunity to thank all our caregivers for their countless contributions and tireless efforts on behalf of our seniors and others throughout Illinois.”
But is this gratitude too little, too late?