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SEIU strike ends in PA, nursing home workers celebrate 'historic moment'

After months at the bargaining table and the longest strike in union history, members of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania have settled on new union contracts intended to benefit both staff and residents across the commonwealth.

SEIU officials announced the resolution of contracts with Priority Healthcare, Comprehensive Healthcare, and Shenandoah Heights Healthcare, LLC, to provide wage increases, improved benefits, and provisions to hold the nursing home industry accountable to workers and residents on Monday, ending a weeklong strike of around 700 staffers.

“After seven days on the picket line, we're eager to get back to our residents and the work we love. It was an incredibly difficult decision to strike, but we hung together because we deserve a contract that protects our union, strengthens our workforce and puts resident care first,” Comprehensive bargaining committee member Shannon McBride, a certified nursing assistant at The Grove at Irwin, owned by Comprehensive Healthcare, said.

“Our demands fell on deaf ears for far too long, but we refused to stand down," McBride added. "And management finally heard us. This agreement is a step in the right direction toward raising the bar for care and care jobs at Comprehensive facilities across Pennsylvania.”

Certified nursing assistants, dietary workers, housekeepers, activities workers, aides and other essential employees vital to nursing homes originally walked off the job on Labor Day weekend, demanding accountability for the $600 million in public funding meant to rebuild the workforce and bring caregivers back to residents' bedsides.

On Aug. 30, workers at facilities owned by Guardian, who originally intended to join the strike, came to an agreement. The new union contracts will impact more than 2,000 workers across the three chains, and while each chain has a separate contract with the union, there are some common elements.

Wage increases, a fundamental part of the strike and negotiations, have been approved, with across-the-board increases for all workers. In addition, longevity increases intended to show respect for years of service and retain workers were included. On average, raises for all workers across the three contracts hovers around 24%.

Matthew Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, noted that the fight for better pay and safer staffing goes far back, though once the pandemic hit, "it really lays bare all of the structural challenges and deficiencies in the way in which we care for our elders and the way in which we care for the people who care for them."

How the PA nursing home industry secured $600 million in funding

Even after securing $247 million in funding last year, which did help with some wage increases, there was still much to do, as that money was limited to a one-time payment. The union went back to Harrisburg, working with the nursing home lobby, the governor's office, state legislature, and the Department of Health to ensure safe staffing and permanent funding — an effort that took contributions from both sides of the political aisle.

Fortunately, that work helped lock down $600 million for the nursing home industry in the commonwealth, yielding a 17.5% increase in the Medicaid rates per resident per day in the homes, in addition to a one-time $131 million payment to facilities that will take place this fall and cover the gap until Jan. 1, 2023, when the new rates kick in.

Yarnell said that achieving pay increases — $16 per hour minimum for all workers at nursing homes, $20 per hour for nurse aides, and $25 per hour for nurses — along with scaled increases for those with more experience, was a monumental victory that could result in changes outside of nursing homes with SEIU workers.

"We made sure everybody got a really good wage increase and make sure that everybody's experience and service is recognized," Yarnell said. "So that's really important, just given all this workforce has been through. And we think getting to those kinds of scales, and getting those across multiple companies will begin to stabilize the industry."Adjustments to health insurance will make care costs more affordable for all caregivers, and ensure more in-network providers.

Owners have committed to adhere to upcoming improved state staffing regulations as well.

Next July, CNAs will be limited to a ratio of one to 12 residents on day and evening shifts, and one to 20 on night shifts. In July 2024, that ratio will go to one to 10 on day shifts, one to 11 on evening shifts, and one to 15 maximum on night shifts. Nurses will see a cap of one to 25 residents on day shift, one to 30 on evenings, and one to 40 on nights.

"And that's still too many people, so we have work to do to get that reduced even further. But that literally cuts in half," Yarnell said.

Finally, successorship language has been utilized to keep union contracts in place if any nursing home is sold, in lieu of dismantling those contracts in a sale. This will allow for union members to maintain some form of contract for a period of time until a new agreement is reached.

"And that is a huge, huge sort of game changer for stability in the industry," Yarnell said. "We have watched our standards for both workers and residents erode as these places sell and change ownership nonstop. So the fact that we now have successorship in these large chains is actually very important for the future of the industry and having stability for residents and workers in the event of a sale."

'A long time coming': Attracting attention to issues faced by PA nursing home workers

Striking staffers kept incredibly busy throughout the week on the picket lines, supporting one another at respective locations and traveling to Harrisburg to call upon state government agencies for assistance and action.

On day one, Allison Bond, a certified nursing assistant who has worked 18 years at The Gardens at Stroud, located in East Stroudsburg, contested chain owners inappropriately using funding intended for staff and clients.

"They are paying corporate big money," Bond said as she and her compatriots protested outside The Gardens. "We got that grant for $600 million, and they're paying agency today to come in for $64 an hour, and we're not even going to get half that with the raise. We've been through the pandemic with no staff."

Bond noted that wage, benefit and staffing issues have been a long-standing problem in the industry, one that absolutely requires a resolution. And according to Bond and her fellow union members, they are more than willing to hold out until Priority comes through.

"I know we're willing to be out here as long as it takes, whatever the money is, 40 bucks a day. We're here. This is a long time coming," Bond said.

Local politicians joined the strikers in East Stroudsburg, sympathizing with their plight.

State Rep. Maureen Madden (D-115) noted staffers are digging into their own pockets to pay for supplies to care for clients, and despite working full time jobs, 36% of healthcare workers in nursing homes live in poverty while struggling with a near-impossible workload. Madden was also joined by other regional Democrats: Stroudsburg Mayor Tarah Probst, who is also running for the 189th district seat, and Meghan Rosenfeld, a candidate for the 139th district.

"They're working 20 patients, 20 seniors to one staffer. It's not sustainable," Madden said. "They worked through COVID. They worked with very little gear, they worked with zero protocol, and it's only gotten worse, and enough is enough. These owners cannot say they don't have the money to compensate these people who are the lifeblood of this nursing facility, who take care of these people who lined these owners' pockets and bank accounts."

Over at The Gardens at Easton, union members called out Priority for a proposed health insurance plan for strikers during the latest contract negotiation. Workers from The Gardens at Stroud joined them, raising personal concerns about looming health concerns that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncovered medical bills.

Hundreds of nursing home workers — including those from East Stroudsburg and Easton — congregated at the state capitol Thursday to march to the Department of Health for a press conference, "calling on all levels of state government to take action to protect nursing home residents."

"Priority and Comprehensive are two of the biggest nursing home chains in Pennsylvania and have not yet settled contracts that put new funding toward staffing and care, even after workers at other nursing home chains settled contracts with statewide wage scales, affordable healthcare, and training and education that will recruit and retain staff. The nursing home industry is receiving $600M investment from the state budget, 70% of which is supposed to go to staffing and bedside care," SEIU stated in a press release Thursday, Sept. 8.

As speakers told tales of staffing and supply shortages, inadequate insurance, and employees purchasing food and necessities to care for their clients, the crowd chanted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in response.

Yarnell said that the overarching goal to help all those in the nursing home industry is incredibly important, as much of the work is done by "women, women of color, and immigrant women" who largely go unrecognized.

"I feel like this is a step in the right direction to both recognize their incredible leadership, and, frankly, their sacrifice and the work that they've done. And I think there's a lot of pride right now, people are feeling pretty good about getting to where we did in this in this negotiation," Yarnell said.

While much work remains, Yarnell is hopeful the union's actions have attracted attention to a looming issue that demands attention, as it will affect just about everyone at some point in their lives.

"It's not a partisan issue. You know, at the end of the day, there is so much division in the country. It doesn't matter if you're an 'R,' a 'D,' an independent or not registered — we're all aging. We're all going to need care at some point, and the system is not great, and we need to change it," Yarnell said.

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