NEW YORK, N.Y. – More than three years after workers at a small Bronx nursing home voted to join 1199SEIU, they’re still trying to win their first contract agreement with the chain that owns it.
“We just feel like we’ve been getting the runaround,” Constance Allen, a certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist, told LaborPress Dec. 10 as about 25 people picketed outside the Centers Health Care chain’s headquarters in Wakefield, about two blocks past the 2 subway line’s northern terminus.
Allen ticks off the things the 44 workers at the Hope Center, a facility in the west Bronx that specializes in HIV care and addiction recovery, want improved: “Health benefits. Underpaid. Understaffed. We barely have supplies.”
Most of the workers make the city’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, the union says, but the bigger issue is health care. Management is refusing to join the Greater New York Benefit Fund — 1199SEIU’s health-care plan.
“We don’t have any benefits,” says licensed practical nurse Patricia Cross. “We’re working every day with blood, urine, feces, and patients with full-blown HIV.”
Centers Health Care offers health insurance, she says, but she cancelled it because the copayments and deductibles were too high and not many providers accept it. She says she hasn’t seen a doctor in more than a year. The company has promised better health benefits in 2021, Cross adds, but has not guaranteed that it will offer them next year.
“Their insurance is so expensive only two people have it,” says Irwin Bluestein, an 1199SEIU lawyer who’s part of the negotiating team. “They’re ignoring us. It’s shockingly callous. They could get a deal, but they won’t.”
Centers Health Care was unavailable for comment. Its offices were closed for the day, with purplish construction paper covering the glass on the doors. A man who stopped by briefly and identified himself as a company staffer declined to give his name or answer questions. An attempt to leave a message on the company’s voicemail was futile because its mailbox was full.
Centers Health Care has more than 40 nursing homes, “post-acute” care centers and adult day-care centers in New York State, with a few more in New Jersey and Rhode Island. It also runs home healthcare services.
Understaffing and lack of supplies endanger both workers and patients at Hope Center, workers say. “One nurse and one CNA carry the whole night shift,” says Cross. Many of the 66 patients are HIV-positive, so “anything can go awry at any time,” Allan adds.
Francois Badenock, the facility’s one driver, says that when he is scheduled to take a patient to a doctor’s appointment, he often has to wait for as much as an hour for a CNA to be available to accompany them. When he’s not driving, he does building services and reception.
Centers Health Care management wants to have up to half the workforce be temporary workers, hired through agencies or on a per-day basis, says Julio Vives, a vice president of 1199SEIU’s nursing-home division.
Management often fails to provide basic supplies such as masks, needles, and “sometimes even linens,” he told the picketers, and the diapers given incontinent patients are of low quality.
Workers say they also want the facility to use syringes with retractable needles, in which the person administering the injection can push a button to make the needle retract—like a ballpoint pen, Cross explains—to protect them from getting stuck and risk being infected with HIV or the MRSA staphylococcus bacteria, which is resistant to several commonly used antibiotics. Three workers have been stuck with needles, she says.
Retractable needles cost about 25 cents apiece more than regular needles, says Bluestein.
“We’re fighting for justice, basically,” says licensed practical nurse Dane McCalla. “Every health-care worker should have coverage.”