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‘$13.20 doesn’t cut it’: Striking WNY nursing home workers seek $15 minimum for service positions

Nursing home workers strike
Tom Dinki
Workers strike outside Autumn View Health Care Facility in Hamburg July 12, 2022. It was one of nine one-day nursing home strikes taking place in Western New York this week.

At nursing homes across Western New York this week, workers clad in purple shirts and equipped with yellow flags can be found marching and chanting.

Their biggest ask? A $15 starting rate for those who repair, cook and clean for the facilities.

“I mean, [residents] can't sleep in a broken bed. We need someone to fix them,” said cook Becky Pettis, who striked at Autumn View Health Care Facility in Hamburg Tuesday. “They need clean clothes to wear every day. How do you do that without laundry?”

Workers held one-day strikes at five facilities Tuesday: Autumn View, Seneca Health Care Center in West Seneca, Humboldt House Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Buffalo, Fiddlers Green Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Springville, and Gowanda Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

And workers at another four facilities will hold a one-day strike Wednesday: Elderwood at Lockport and Williamsville, Garden Gate Health Care Facility in Cheektowaga and Northgate Health Care Facility in North Tonawanda.

1199 SEIU, the largest health care union in the country, is seeking the same wage levels at all nine facilities, including the $15-an-hour minimum for service workers.

Nursing home worker Becky Pettis strikes
Autumn View Health Care Facility cook Becky Pettis marches and chants during a one-day strike July 12, 2022.

Pettis, who has worked at Autumn View for 31 years and makes $19 an hour, said new service workers at her facility often make the New York state minimum of $13.20 an hour.

The low wages often lead to short staffing and high staff turnover, she said. The federal government does not provide turnover data on nursing home service workers, but does report that Autumn View has a nursing staff turnover of 56%. The state average is 45%.

“People don't want to work in health care anymore — not for $13.20 an hour when you could pour coffee for $16 or $17 an hour,” Becky said

Plus, the low wages also leave service workers living “paycheck to paycheck, Pettis said.

“And that's not fair because they have families to support and houses to take care of,” she added. “$13.20 doesn't cut it.”

Autumn View licensed practical nurse Teri Buczkowski agreed, calling her co-workers’ minimum wage compensation “atrocious.”

“You can't live on that nowadays,” she said. “How do you drive yourself to work? I mean, I don't know how people afford the gas.”

Although she and other direct care workers are also seeking wage increases for themselves, Buczkowski said the biggest push at the bargaining table is to get service workers above minimum wage.

“So we fight for everybody,” she said.

A spokesperson for Autumn View’s owner, the McGuire Group, said the company is offering to provide service workers with paid training that would allow them to become certified nursing assistants; CNAs generally earn more than service workers, although not always much more.

However, Buczkowski said many of McGuire’s CNA trainees leave for higher-paying facilities not long after getting licensed.

“Nurses leave for doctors’ offices, and then they don't have to deal with the short staffing,” she added.

1199 SEIU has filed five unfair labor practice charges against McGuire, which owns four of the facilities where workers are striking this week. The company spokesperson, Dawn Harsch, said “at no time” has its employees ever been coerced or intimidated.

Workers were originally set to strike at 12 Western New York nursing homes after a successful vote 10 days ago, but 1199 SEIU canceled strikes at three of the facilities after reaching wage agreements over the weekend.

The Buffalo and Ellicott Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, as well as the Newfane Rehab and Health Care Center, all agreed to $15 starting rates, and tentative contracts will be reached there after “a small number of outstanding issues” are resolved, the union said.

The one commonality between all 12 facilities? For-profit ownership.

McGuire disclosed in a lawsuit last year that Autumn View would have had to pay back $3.5 million under the state's 5% cap on nursing home profits and another $3.5 million under the state's 70-40 care spending mandate, totaling $7 million. That was the most money of any Upstate nursing home involved in the suit.

“Instead of worrying about the money in their pockets, they should worry about the people that are taking care of their humans,” Pettis said.

Pettis and her fellow Autumn View bargaining committee members will head back to the bargaining table with McGuire on July 20.

“And if they don't come back with something better, we may have to just do a full blown strike,” she said.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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