A sign of the times, Lewiston nursing home workers go on strike today
Our Lady of Peace is a 250-bed nursing home in Niagara County that quite literally borders the U.S.-Canadian border. The roof of a Duty Free store is visible from the nursing home’s front entrance.
Last month, in the shadow of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, workers there staged a picket over a contract dispute with the facility’s owner, Ascension Living.
“They don't hear us,” said licensed practical nurse and bargaining committee member Krista Diez during the Feb. 10 picket. “They don't hear us wanting more staff. They don't hear us wanting comparable wages to everybody else in the area. They're not hearing us.”
She and other workers now say they’re still not being heard, and will be out in front of Our Lady of Peace again on Wednesday. This time it won’t just be a picket — it’ll be a one-day strike.
The 150 workers at the facility unanimously voted for a 10-day strike notice last month after talks with Ascension Living broke down. Workers have been without a contract since their 16-month deal expired on New Year’s Eve.
“Striking is always a last resort,” said Hannah Lorenc, an administrative organizer with 1199 SEIU, the union that represents Our Lady of Peace workers and thousands more nursing home workers across New York. “We only deploy this tactic when we feel absolutely necessary, and when our workers are ready to stand up for what they deserve, and if management is refusing to give them what they deserve.”
Ascension Living had originally threatened workers with a five-day lockout in response to their one-day strike. 1199 SEIU even filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over the threat. However, on Monday, Ascension Living called off the lockout.
Still, the company said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the strike.
“We are proud of the selfless care our associates provide our residents every day. We have been bargaining in good faith with SEIU and look forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement,” read the statement, which added it had a contingency plan to ensure residents did not experience any gap in care.
Nursing home strikes are rare, at least for Western New York. Officials with 1199 SEIU, which is the largest health care union in the county, said Wednesday’s strike at Our Lady of Peace is its first strike at a Western New York nursing home since 2005.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and a statewide shortage of health care workers has perhaps emboldened nursing home workers, who often receive low wages.
“I think the nursing home [workers] can see that at the bargaining table it's possible to ask for significant increases in this time,” said Cornell University labor expert Art Wheaton. “And if they don't get those at the bargaining table, they may be able to go out on strike and they may get support for that strike.”
Workers want ‘standard’ WNY wages
Daniel Martinucci has been a maintenance technician at Our Lady of Peace for 19 years.
He declined to reveal how much he earns an hour because “it’s embarrassing.”
“It's really embarrassing to tell you how much I make,” he said. “I do electrical, plumbing, carpentry, painting, patching. It's just embarrassing.”
To 1199 SEIU, the issue of compensation isn't all that complicated: Our Lady of Peace workers should be paid the “standard” for Western New York nursing home wages.
The union has secured several contracts in the area over the last few months that include considerable 20% pay bumps, as well as a $16.50 minimum wage for certified nursing assistants and $24 minimum wage for licensed practical nurses. Those minimum rates are both above the overall average rates for those positions in the Buffalo-Niagara region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The standard for our wages has gone up significantly in the last year in terms of just the starting rates and the increases that we have been able to win,” Lorenc said.
However, Ascension Living has not been willing to go there.
“Instead of coming to the table and meeting the wage standard that we have here in Western New York, they continue to propose far below,” said Grace Bogdanove, vice president of 1199 SEIU’s Western New York nursing home division.
Ascension Living is a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Ascension Health, which runs 142 hospitals and 40 senior living facilities across the U.S. It’s the largest tax-exempt health system in the country and reported a net income of $5.7 billion last year. A Stat News investigation last year found it runs an unusual private equity operation worth over $1 billion.
Despite the size of Ascension Health, Our Lady of Peace is shrinking. It’s currently operating at just 48% occupancy, far below the state average of 83%, according to U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid data. Three of its units, two long-term care and one sub-acute, have been shut down since November 2020.
1199 SEIU said the reason Our Lady of Peace can’t fill more beds is because it doesn’t have enough staff to take care of the residents who would occupy them. The facility’s staffing levels are rated below average by the federal government.
There’s a health care worker shortage across New York, with nursing homes having lost 14% of their workforce since the pandemic began.
The union argues the way to recruit and retain staff is to increase wages.
“The wages that management is proposing will not fix the problem. It will not allow for these units to reopen. It will not allow for recruiting and retaining health care workers,” Bogdanove said. “We're just seeing the employer increasingly rely on agency workers rather than be committed at the table to increasing the wage rates to meet the area standard.”
Strikes on the rise
One doesn’t have to look very far to see the surging strike movement.
“You saw it at John Deere, you saw it at Kellogg's making cereal in Battle Creek, you're seeing a lockout right now for Major League Baseball,” said Wheaton, who is director of labor studies at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “So labor issues are pretty big.”
A recent report by Cornell found a large uptick in strikes last October and November. Altogether last year there were 265 strikes involving approximately 140,000 workers.
Of those workers, more than half were in health care.
Western New York saw that movement firsthand. Over 2,000 workers at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo went on strike for 35 days last fall before coming to a four-year contract agreement with Catholic Health.
“In health care, COVID and other assorted crises have really started to wear down the workforce and cause burnout,” Wheaton said.
It remains to be seen to what degree there’s a strike movement specifically in nursing homes, but there have been some signs of activity. Last year nearly 3,000 nursing home workers in Connecticut threatened to go on strike. The state’s governor and general assembly committed to fund wage increases in the state budget the day before the strike was to begin.
Wheaton said it’s reasonable that nursing homes workers are willing to go on strike, considering they generally make less than hospital workers and now often make less than retail and fast food workers.
“You're asking people to work during a pandemic in a very stressful environment for less money than what they could get going to work at Target,” Wheaton said.
Lorenc said working through the pandemic caused many of 1199 SEIU’s nursing home members to re-evaluate their worth.
“There was a lot of burnout in the beginning and middle of the pandemic,” she said, “and it wasn't until the end that the sky started to clear a little bit that people could look back on their time and realize, ‘Wow, I can't believe that's what we did, and we should get what we deserve for the work that we do.’”
Still, Wheaton said strikes are never ideal for any party, especially in nursing homes. Nursing home operators end up having to pay replacement workers double or triple the rate of regular workers, while residents lose caregivers who know their individual needs.
“For nursing homes or for elder care, it's critically important to have a steady workforce,” Wheaton said.
Workers will demonstrate outside Our Lady of Peace from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday. They plan to return to work at 7 a.m. Thursday and return to the bargaining table on March 21, but say another strike is possible.