• Monica Cruz

Nursing Home Workers Win Big


Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times This week, nursing home workers narrowly avoided a statewide strike and won historic pay raises in Pennsylvania. A stunning 13,000+ nursing home residents and workers died from the coronavirus in the state. Meanwhile, workers endured poverty wages, staff shortages, and terrible conditions, which have all been plaguing the homes for decades. Hear from Kim Jackson, a 20 year-long licensed practical nurse who was set to go on strike this week at a nursing home in Pennsylvania.

PLUS: Striking coal miners from the Warrior Met Mines in Alabama take their picket line to the front door of the company’s biggest investor, again. The UMWA members have entered their fourth month on strike and have been subjected to escalating violence at the picket line, including multiple vehicular assaults. Host Monica Cruz joins them at their massive rally this morning at the headquarters of BlackRock investment services in Manhattan.

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[ROUGH TRANSCRIPT] Host: Pennsylvania nursing home workers win big after narrowly avoiding a strike. Plus striking Alabama miners return to New York City to take their picket line back to BlackRock.

Every day workers across the globe are rising up to defend their humanity and fight for their dignity on the job. At a time of both record poverty and record profits. Hearing the billionaire bosses have created the very circumstances for workers to lose their fear and demand everything that they deserve as the class struggle advances, the stories of workers are front and center here. This is on the picket line and I'm your host. Monica Cruz.

Clip: 13,000 people in our communities have died because of delays in actions and misplaced priority.

The pandemic has highlighted the issues and some of our states nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and a group of lawmakers and community leaders are putting out a call for action to help protect workers

Host: You just heard a report by WPIX news from last month, detailing the terrible conditions at nursing homes in the state of Pennsylvania. This week over 1500 nursing home workers with sci IU, health, healthcare, Pennsylvania, just narrowly averted, a day long strike, and one historic pay raises caregivers at 53 facilities across the state, all reach tentative agreements by Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the one day strike was set to take place. In addition to this major victory for their contracts, nursing home workers also saw a huge win in public policy. Last week, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf's office announced a proposal to increase the required time of care for residents to the federally recommended minimum of 4.1 hours a day for almost 25 years. Nursing homes in the state were only required to provide 2.7 hours of care to each resident daily, a standard that experts and workers alike have called dangerous.

These nursing homes have been facing a staffing shortage crisis for almost three decades, Pennsylvania department of health audits in 2016 and 2019 found that the state consistently failed to address staffing shortages or to penalize homes that were short-staffed. So of course, once COVID hit, the conditions of these homes got even worse quickly instead of using federal funds to aid the already crippled nursing homes. One of the first moves the Wolf administration made was to waive care requirements and allow homes to operate. Even if they fell below state required staffing levels, a Spotlight PA report found that the 50 homes with the lowest staffing hours in the state were twice as likely to have at least one coronavirus-related death than the 50 homes with the highest level of staffing hours. And of the 68 nursing homes where 20 or more residents had died as of June 8, 2020, only eight met or exceeded the federal staffing recommendation.

The report also found several concerns with the process for nursing home inspections, including the fact that inspectors are often not properly trained and can sometimes be a bit too “cozy” with management. When the pandemic hit and conditions at the homes worsened, routine inspections were halted. The state conducted inspections at facilities, struggling the most with infection control issues. Majority of these inspections were done virtually and inspectors rarely reported any problems. At least 33 inspections were carried out specifically in response to complaints about the virus, but the state said it found no issues at these homes. Despite the fact that majority of these homes had seen multiple resident deaths. I spoke with Kim Jackson, a 20 year long licensed practical nurse who was set to go on strike this week at her nursing home in Pennsylvania.

Kim Jackson: I mean, we were frontline workers all this time working with COVID. Some people didn't even see any COVID money. Some workers didn't see any of that. And we do know that that the nursing homes did get money from that. So as a result, some of them were a little angry, which is well deserved for them to be angry because they didn't even get COVID money. When we were the ones working the whole time, you know, in the COVID units and taking care of sick people and watching our residents die and watching our coworkers die and, and every day going to work. And you're just, it was just such a feeling, a feeling of hopelessness

Host: Workers with SEIU Healthcare PA have been begging the state for relief funds. So the homes can hire more staff and improve wages. They were finally heard last month when the state legislature passed a budget allocating $247 million for the state's nursing homes. Kim Jackson described these wins as just the first step to making the state's nursing homes more equitable to workers and residents alike.

Kim Jackson: This is only phase one, so we have to work and work and work to make sure that we get that through. And so, as a union and as healthcare workers, nursing home workers, we're going to fight for that. And we're also going to fight for a fair and equal contract so that we can go to work knowing that our families are fed.

Host: Low pay is a huge concern for nursing home workers everywhere as the starting pay for most positions is near or at the minimum wage. These poverty wages combined with the abysmal conditions have contributed to record high turnover rates in nursing homes, according to SIU healthcare, PA current staff turnover rates average 128% in the state's nursing homes. And these staffing shortages are a crisis nationally, a June, 2021 survey from the American healthcare association and national sensor for assisted living found that 94% of nursing home facilities had a shortage of staff members in the last month and more than half lost key members of their staff during the pandemic due to workers quitting. So from health officials to state inspectors and nursing home management, there are many individuals we can blame for the disastrous circumstances in these facilities, but one culprit has continued to decimate the quality of care and conditions for workers at these nursing homes for decades on end.

And that is privatization. A study done nearly two decades ago on nursing homes in Pennsylvania done by the Keystone research center still rings true today. The report found that staffing cuts were worse in facilities that were privatized and that workers' wages and employee turnover went from bad to worse. As facilities move to a for-profit model today, more than 70% of nursing homes in the US are privately owned for-profit facilities, a 2016 report titled the need for higher minimum staffing standards in us. Nursing homes stated that quote, the profit incentive has been shown to be directly related to low staffing and quote, and found that for-profit homes operate with less staff and worse quality care than their nonprofit counterparts. Perhaps more surprising than these findings is how often these homes are bought and sold to new owners, forcing unionized workers to renegotiate their contracts and subjecting them to worsening conditions. Kim Jackson, a 20 year long licensed practical nurse in Pennsylvania described her experience with this issue.

Kim Jackson: In the last 10 years, and I've been at the same facility, has been bought and sold three times. So not only have we had different companies come in, but I'll do all new management. And just when you think it can't get worse to can, you know staffing will get worse. They have more ideas. They want to save money. Sometimes you don't have the right supplies. Sometimes you don't have enough staff and sometimes you ask for it and there is nobody to get. In light of all these recent wins for Pennsylvania's nursing home workers. I asked him to describe the mood at her workplace.

Everybody's hopeful now because you know, nobody really thought that the hours of care per resident were going to be increased, let alone to what we wanted it to be. So, you know, both the 4.1 and the wage increases, they're both historic. They're both historic in our industry. And we want to thank everyone that heard us.

TRANSITION

UMWA members chanting: Warrior Met Coal, ain’t got no soul! UMWA! UMWA!

Host: You just heard the voices of hundreds of UMW way members, supporters, and other organized labor members rallying outside of the office of BlackRock investment services and Manhattan. Earlier this morning, coal miners at the Warrior Met Mines in Brookwood, Alabama have been on strike since April 1st, demanding better pay, affordable healthcare and more time off last month. A group of the striking miners took their picket lines to BlackRock, which is Warrior Met’s largest investor. Since then, they and their families have been subjected to escalating violence at the picket lines across the various mine entrances. Warrior Met personnel, including full-time staff and temporary workers have been seen driving their cars directly into those on the picket lines, sending multiple strikers to the hospital with thankfully nothing more than minor injuries. The most recent attack took place a few weeks ago, when a truck made an abrupt turn into the picket line, hitting the wife of a striking miner. Eyewitnesses with the union say a police officer was right there.

When it happened, he spoke to the truck driver then told those at the picket line there was nothing he could do about it since another officer was not there to “corroborate” what had happened. While the miners have held strong on the picket line, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the fourth month in a row, Warrior Met Mines has seen an increase in activity from the largest hedge funds in the world. I joined the strikers at their rally this morning to speak with them about why they're taking their pickets of BlackRock, again. Here's Lanaye Cannon, a 13 year vet of the coal mines in Brookwood, Alabama.

Lanaye Cannon: I was there when we pulled them out of bankruptcy. They took everything from us. They said, next contract they would give it back. Contract time came around April 1st. They did not offer a contract. They told him we didn't deserve what we were making so we went on strike.

Host: What’s the mood been like at the picket lines?

Lanaye Cannon: It's, it's pretty. It's pretty good.. I mean, we're fighting this. All we can do. A lot of people have gotten, you know, other jobs and stuff. So they come after they get off work, we're standing strong.

Host: I also spoke with Emmanuel Barnfield, another 13 year vet of the mine who described the conditions the miners are fighting to change at Warrior Met.

Emmanuel Barnfield: They took away health insurance, premium shift from you, they canmake you work 40 days straight if they want to. No o holidays off with your families. You can't get sick. If you get sick four times, you’re fired.

Host: At the rally I also met with Amy Pinkerton, the wife of a striking minor I mentioned earlier, who was a hit by a truck a few weeks ago while picketing at the mine.

Amy Pinkerton: I signed a warrant for the guy's arrest who hit me. That's been a month ago. They have yet to pick him up, even though he's going in and out the entrance to that mine, where the local Sheriff's office are stationed at. They could easily pick him up if they wanted to. But it just goes to show you that this company has probably paid the local Sheriff's office to try to turn a blind eye. It seems our local government there in Alabama, our local officials, it seems that they're all in the pocket and you know, they just turned their backs on us. And you know, we're not asking for much. We're just asking for what we had or close to.

Host: Now, Alabama has not seen a major coal mine strike in 40 years. And though the miners are making history, they have not yet made any major headlines. A news analysis by Media Matters found that the three largest cable networks in the country,: CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have made zero mention of the strike. Since it began at the rally, this morning, I spoke with a striking minor who joked that Fox News loves coal miners … until they go on strike.

OUTRO

And that's it for this week's episode of On the Picket Line! Make sure to follow BreakThrough News @BTnewsroom on Instagram and Twitter, you can find us by searching BreakThrough News anywhere else.