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Striking nursing home employees say conditions for residents are ‘the worst I have seen’

Patriot-News - 9/2/2022

Caregivers stood outside of The Gardens at Blue Ridge nursing home in Susquehanna Township on Sept. 2, heading into Labor Day weekend on a picket line instead of at work.

The nursing home is one of 14 across Pennsylvania that have gone on strike, as negotiations between the staff union and management broke down early Friday morning. And their primary concern, they said, was that the care being provided wasn’t enough for the residents.

Elizabeth Empson, a licensed practical nurse, said that the conditions for her residents were the worst she has seen in 18 years on the job.

“Our residents here, they need better health care,” Empson said. “They need better supplies, they need better food. And they need better care.”

Empson said that the conditions were “deplorable” for the residents she cared for, largely due to a lack of supplies and staffing shortages. She works night shifts, and is the sole person caring for 55 residents overnight.

“The mattresses have holes in them, they’re leaking out urine,” she said. “The food, none of the residents like. We work with no supplies sometimes. We worked through COVID, the worst part of the time. The residents deserve better, they really do.”

Empson said that staff will often bring in supplies for residents they’ve bought themselves, ranging from toilet paper to food items. The supplies offered by the nursing home simply don’t cover the necessary needs, she said, let alone cater to the preferences of residents or provide them with dignity.

“We’re putting small briefs on people who can’t even fit small, but that’s all we have,” she said. “They’re getting blisters and sores. It’s not fair.”

Marietta Ndaya works the morning shift as a nurse, but works double shifts constantly.

“We are never [fully] staffed,” Ndaya said. “Sometimes you’d rather pick up the shifts than be mandated. If you don’t pick up [double shifts], they’re going to mandate you anyway. So we just choose to work the 16 hours and go home, because after 16 hours they can’t make you work any more.”

Ndaya explained that without proper staffing numbers, sometimes residents are forced to wait for necessary care - waiting up to an hour in their own feces or urine, for instance, because caregivers are too busy serving meals or doing housekeeping work. Nurses, whose positions are meant specifically to provide care to residents, are instead constantly filling in for things like laundry duty or serving meals.

“Sometimes, if it’s almost lunchtime, nobody can change this person,” she said. “And [they] have to be given a plate to eat, sitting in [their] own poop. It’s so disgusting. Why? Because we have no staff. We have not enough people. There’s nothing we can do. This is the worst I have seen it.”

Staffing is difficult to maintain, employees said, because starting wages aren’t competitive. Why help care for the sick or infirm, they said, when you can work at a fast food restaurant and be paid more?

“Someone will come apply, and when they see the starting rate, they’ll say ‘I’d rather go work at McDonalds,’” Ndaya said. “Why should I come work for nine dollars or ten dollars when I can get $15 at McDonalds?

But where is the money to provide these supplies, and offer better starting wages?

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania State Legislature authorized 600 million dollars to go toward better funding for nursing homes across the state, with 70 percent of that funding earmarked for “resident care” - though what exactly that means is still under debate. That bill was passed with support from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the union currently striking at 14 nursing homes in Pennsylvania.

Despite this, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania has gone on strike at two companies’ nursing homes, Comprehensive Healthcare and Priority Healthcare. According to union members, those companies are prioritizing their own profits rather than investing in the necessary care for patients and support for employees.

“They want to use their money to buy other nursing homes,” Empson said. “Build their [own] revenue up. Instead of building the people up here, and making this a better nursing home, they want to buy other nursing homes [and run them] under the same conditions.”

Matt Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said that staff at nursing homes have been “to hell and back” working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had a care crisis ahead of COVID, but COVID really laid bare the problems,” Yarnell said. “Folks spoke out about the conditions they’ve been treated, and residents have been treated. For the last two years, we’ve worked to win the resources to make these jobs better.”

Yarnell pointed out that nursing home care is often provided by women, particularly women of color, and immigrants, and that is part of why it is “forgotten work” that often goes under-appreciated by society.

Despite successes with the state legislature finding that funding, the wage minimum arrangements being offered by Comprehensive Healthcare and Priority Healthcare are still not enough to satisfy the union’s demands, and be seen as competitive compared to other employment options or contracted agency work.

Among the union’s demands, Yarnell said, was increasing the minimum wage to $16 an hour for dietary and housekeeping positions, up from $11-12 range, and starting wages of $20 an hour for certified nurse assistant wages, and $25 an hour for licensed nurses.

“Our position as a union is, you’ve got to to create these conditions to make these good jobs, so that workers will come back to the bedside,” Yarnell said.

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