‘This is pretty historic’: 10 WNY nursing homes to go on strike this week
Donna Gregory has been a certified nursing assistant since 2005, and has worked at the Garden Gate nursing home in Cheektowaga for the last nine years.
Despite this, she makes less than $15 an hour.
“I'm living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “The economy is so high now that a two-bedroom [apartment] is $1,200 [a month]. There's no way I can afford that with the pay they’re giving me, so it affects me horribly.”
Gregory is far from alone. She’s just one of over 1,000 Western New York nursing home workers across 10 facilities set to go on one-day strikes this week for higher wages.
Workers authorized the strikes by a 98% margin in a vote earlier this month.
The striking facilities include Gregory’s Garden Gate facility and three other homes owned by the McGuire Group; the Elderwood locations in Lockport and Williamsville; Humboldt House Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Buffalo; Fiddlers Green Manor in Springville; Newfane Rehabilitation and Health Center; and Gowanda Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
Some will strike on Tuesday, while the others will strike on Wednesday.
The workers’ union, 1199 SEIU, the largest health care union in the country, said this will be its first-ever coordinated nursing home strike in Upstate New York. Three Buffalo-area nursing homes went on strike together back in 2005, but that was part of a statewide strike.
“So this is pretty historic,” said Grace Bogdanove, 1199 SEIU vice president for Western New York nursing homes.
What connects these 10 striking nursing homes, according to Bogdanove, is that all have recently expired contracts with for-profit owners and are all seeking the same wage levels.
Those wage levels include a $15 starting rate for service workers, including those in housekeeping, laundry and cooking.
1199 SEIU over the last year has pushed for, and insome cases won, $16.50 starting rates for CNAs and $24 starting rates for licensed practical nurses. However, Bogdanove admits the union is now seeking even higher rates.
“That's certainly the very minimum that we're looking for,” she said. “It's time now for nursing home workers across Western New York, across the state, across the nation to stand up, particularly against for-profit owners, who look for ways to funnel taxpayer monies into their own pockets rather than putting them into the workers’ wages and into the care that the residents receive.”
Workers plan to strike at four of McGuire’s five Western New York nursing homes. Those facilities saw a total net operating income of $1.6 million in 2020, according to ananalysis by conservative think tank The Empire Center.
Asked for comment, McGuire spokesperson Dawn Harsch said the company offered 1199 SEIU a chance to open their contract up for wage increases in December, but the union declined. McGuire is now offering an almost 25% percent starting rate increase for LPNs and a nearly 15% increase for CNAs. It’s also offering more paid time off, as well aspaid training for service workers to become CNAs.
But negotiations at McGuire have gotten particularly heated.
1199 SEIU filed five unfair labor practice charges against McGuire this week. The allegations include attempting to directly deal with workers by contacting them outside of work about bargaining proposals, as well as threatening to terminate workers over labor action.
Bogdanove said McGuire officials also falsely told workers that 1199 SEIU does not have a strike fund to assist them during a potentially longer strike.
“So this is just some of what our members have been experiencing at the McGuire group facilities over the past few months,” she said.
Harsch said McGuire officials are “well aware of our rights and obligations under the [National Labor Relations Act],” and “at no time” have their employees ever been coerced or intimidated.
“Throughout the process, we have used legal means to communicate with them because they have a right to full transparency,” Harsch said.
The allegations are now before the National Labor Relations Board, which received over 15,000 unfair labor practice charges last year. About a third resulted in settlements, while less than 5% resulted in complaints being issued.
As for resident care, Harsh said McGuire does not expect any interruption of services. She added their facilities will be staffed well above New York state’s new safe staffing requirements of 3.5 care hours per resident during the strike.
Nursing homes often contract with care agencies to fill staffing holes even on non-strike days.
Strikes at the two Centers nursing homes in Buffalo were called off over the weekend after an agreement was reached on wages. 1199 SEIU and the owners of Buffalo and Ellicott Centers for Rehabilitation and Nursing return to the table Thursday and to resolve a few other outstanding issues.
Although this week’s coordinated strikes may be unprecedented for Western New York, they won’t be the region’s first nursing home strikes this year.
1199 SEIU held a one-day strike at Lewiston’s Our Lady of Peace in March. Workers there came to a contract agreement with owner Ascension Living a month later in a deal that included wage increases and $1,000 bonuses.
It’s another yet another sign of the growing strike movement in the U.S., which saw a surge last fall. The health care industry was particularly active, as half of the approximately 140,000 workers who went on strike in 2021 were in health care, according to a Cornell Universityreport.
Bogdanove said nursing home workers are more willing to strike after working through the last two years through the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted nursing homes.
And she said Western New York nursing home workers may be willing to go beyond this week’s one-day strikes.
“We're going to have to start having conversations about what comes next, and that can include a longer strike,” she said. “These workers are ready to do whatever it takes.”
In the current labor market, nursing home workers often make less than many retail and fast food workers. Amazon, which is expected to begin building a warehouse in the Town of Niagara this fall, offers starting rates of $18 an hour.
But Gregory said she has no plans to leave the nursing home industry.
“I don't think I would be good at retail. I don't think that's my calling,” she said. “My calling is to care for others.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that 1199 SEIU announced Sunday that strikes at the Buffalo and Ellicott Centers for Rehabilitation and Nursing had been called off.