July 7, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
Union City, NJ – There’s good money to be had providing vital care to the aged and infirm. New Jersey’s Alaris Health took in more than $170 million in profits between 2010 and 2014 — it just hasn’t trickled down to the people who actual feed, bathe, change and transport the vulnerable clientele. For them, caring for the super vulnerable is a great way to end up broke with no health insurance.
Devika Smith, 40, has worked for Alaris Health for over 10 years as a Certified Nursing Assistant — back around the time when the nursing home chain was still better known as Omni Health System. The Jersey City mother of four still earns less than $15 an hour and can’t afford to buy into the company associated health care package.
As a CNA, Smith is responsible for providing daily comprehensive care to 10 to 12 elderly individuals residing at Alaris Health At Castle Hill in Union City. Many, if not most of her clients suffer from Alzheimer’s.
“Yeah, it’s wear and tear on each and every one of us CNAs — our backs, our legs, our arms. And every day there’s more and more things CNAs are required to do,” Smith says. “And now, a lot of people have behavioral issues — so, every day it’s like you’re in a boxing ring or something.”
Smith and her colleagues have been working for more than two years without a contract. Earlier this year, a judge found Alaris guilty of a grab bag full of unfair labor practices ranging from employee intimidation to refusing to bargain in good faith.
Management was quick to silence Smith when she first began to speak out against unfair working conditions and later joined the strike that took place in 2014. According to Smith, managers warned her that if she went out on strike, she wasn’t coming back in.
Smith was subsequently locked out for 10 months and faced the loss of her CNA license before ultimately being allowed back to work last summer when she continued to face intimidation. Smith estimates that Alaris owes her approximately $12,000 in unpaid wages.
“I’m strong and can’t be intimidated,” Smith says. “I knew my rights and what they did by locking me out was illegal. Still, it was scary. During that time my license was supposed to be renewed and I needed to be working. I was stressed about that. But I have a good family and I made it.”
With bargaining remaining stalled, Alaris workers including Smith, have joined with their union supporters in 1199 SEIU on several picket lines outside Alaris health facilities this summer.
Despite management’s continued recalcitrance, nursing home workers say they remain committed to their special clientele. Alaris caregiver Ella Moton recently told LaborPress’ “Blue Collar Buzz” that even though she took part on the picket line, she promised herself “no one would die alone.”
Bryn Lloyd-Bollard, spokesperson for 1199 SEIU, says that Alaris’ silence on workplace abuses is “par for the course.”
“They tend to maintain silence and ignore their responsibilities and disregard their legal obligations,” Lloyd-Bollard says.
The union and Alaris last wrangled over workplace abuses back in 2007 through 2010, when a different administrative law judge identified and attributed 20 unfair labor practices to Alaris. Lloyd-Bollard says the ugly confrontation sullied the company brand so much that Alaris — previously known as Omni Health System — had to basically reinvent itself under the new monicker.
“But even though they changed their name, they haven’t changed their ways,” Lloyd-Bollard says.
In addition to owing unpaid wages to locked out employees — including Smith — 1199 SEIU maintains that Alaris has yet to divulge legally required information on staffing levels throughout its New Jersey facilities. Additional job actions like the ones already seen this summer are expected to continue, and even escalate, if a fair contract is not obtained soon.
“Even though my back hurts, my hands hurt and I’m stretching every penny, I have to work and I’m going to stick this out,” Smith says.
Alaris has yet to respond to requests for comment.