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Nursing home workers go on strike for better staffing and care
The Citizens' Voice - 9/5/2022
Sep. 3—PLAINS TWP. — Nichole Rinish, a certified nursing assistant at The Gardens at East Mountain, worked a 16-hour shift Thursday into Friday and then joined nearly 30 co-workers who went on strike for better investments into staffing and care.
Rinish was one of about 700 unionized workers from 14 nursing homes across the state who hit the picket line Friday.
She said she is typically one of two certified nursing assistants caring for 37 patients in one unit at The Gardens at East Mountain nursing home.
"I worked from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. and I've been out here ever since," Rinish said on the picket line. "Staffing is the biggest thing for me and resident care."
Betty Sartini, a licensed practical nurse at The Gardens at East Mountain, held a sign calling for better staffing and "no more excuses."
She said she joined the picket line after working Thursday night with two assistants to care for about 40 residents.
"I'm on strike for those residents because that's unsafe," Sartini said. "Residents are yelling out and saying, 'I need to be changed' and they're calling on their call bell but nobody is coming. That's why we are out here today."
Officials from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the union that represents the nursing home workers, said they launched Friday's unfair labor practice strikes to hold two of the state's largest corporate nursing home chains accountable. They said Comprehensive Healthcare and Priority Healthcare failed to provide significant enough investments into staffing and care.
"Our goal has always been — and continues to be — to get a fair contract that invests in this entire workforce and will meaningfully address the staffing crisis," said Matthew Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania. "But the offers on the table still fall short. Comprehensive and priority are failing to create the kind of wage scales we've been able to achieve with other providers. These workers have been underpaid and disrespected for far too long and it's both them and the residents they care for who suffer."
Toby Kibbler, a certified nursing assistant who works in the Alzheimer's unit at The Gardens at East Mountain and union president, showed a skeleton on display on the picket line with the sign "worked to death."
"After 16-hour shifts, sometimes that's how we look," Kibbler said as several passing motorists honked their horns in support.
A news release from The Gardens at East Mountain charged that employees represented by SEIU 1199 "walked off their jobs" after 11 bargaining sessions.
"We want the public to know that we did not want our employees to follow the union and abandon their jobs," the news release said. "We believe it is irresponsible in these challenging times. Most importantly, we are fully staffed and providing care to our residents."
SEIU officials said in a news release no additional bargaining dates have been set but workers are "hopeful to get back to the table as soon as possible." In the meantime, the strike is "open ended" and has no set end date, said Karen Gownley, a spokeswoman for SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.
Officials from The Gardens at East Mountain said in their release that they "remain committed to our employees and made every attempt to reach a new contract with SEIU and employees." They said their goal is to raise wages "for our employees to assist them in these challenging times."
According to their release, The Gardens at East Mountain's offer involved wage increases as high as $4 an hour for some categories, 29% pay increases for certified nursing assistants based on years of experience which would raise their wages to more than $20 an hour, 17% in pay increases for licensed practical nurses and 28% in pay increases for cooks based on years of experience.
The Gardens at East Mountain's release said workers also were offered better benefits and reduced monthly premiums which would significantly lower an employee's out-of-pocket costs on co-pays and medications.
In addition to The Gardens at East Mountain, workers at The Gardens at Wyoming Valley in Wilkes-Barre and 12 other nursing homes in Pennsylvania also went on strike on Friday.
Nursing homes have long struggled with high turnover, which the COVID-19 pandemic made worse, and some facilities were forced to close or downsize because of lagging Medicaid reimbursements, according to trade groups.
State lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf recently hiked Medicaid payments to nursing homes by nearly $300 million annually and sent another $130 million in federal coronavirus aid to help them hire and retain workers. The additional Medicaid funding represents a 17.5% increase, or about $35 more per resident per day.
But the increased reimbursements do not kick in until January, and the American Rescue Plan money has not yet been distributed, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents for-profit nursing homes.
Pennsylvania has about 700 licensed nursing homes.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.
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