LEWISTON, N.Y.— Demanding better pay and improved staffing, more than 150 workers at a nursing home near Buffalo began a 24-hour strike March 9.
“We can’t get anyone to come in here at the low wages they’re proposing,” said longtime maintenance technician Daniel Martinucci, speaking to LaborPress from the picket line outside Ascension Living’s Our Lady of Peace facility in Lewiston, a small town just north of Niagara Falls.
The workers are seeking wages comparable to what they would get at other nursing homes in Western New York, he added, and Our Lady of Peace needs to hire “easily” 150 more staff.
“There’s not that one-on-one care anymore,” he said. “I feel bad for the residents.”
The 250-bed facility pays $1 to $5 an hour less than what workers earn doing the same jobs at other area nursing homes, an 1199SEIU spokeswoman told LaborPress. Contract talks had broken down earlier in the week, the union said.
The best-paying nursing home in Western New York, according to 1199, is in Getzville, a village a few miles northeast of Buffalo. The contract ratified there in December set minimum starting salaries at $16.50 an hour for certified nursing assistants and $24 for licensed practical nurses.
Since November 2020, the Ascension Living chain has closed three units at Our Lady of Peace because of staffing shortages, including its rehab unit, 1199 says.
“It’s our workers going to other places for better wages,” says Theresa Tomlin, a certified nursing assistant there for more than 10 years.
Ascension Living did not answer specific questions about wages or staffing.
“We are disappointed 1199 Service Employees International Union has made the decision to proceed with a strike, especially given the hardship this will present for our associates and their families, and the concern this action may cause our residents and their loved ones,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We have a comprehensive contingency plan in place to ensure our residents and their families experience no interruption of care or service. We are proud of the selfless care our associates provide our residents every day. We have been bargaining in good faith with SEIU and look forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.”
Ascension Living had threatened to lock the workers out for five days if they went on strike for one day, but relented after 1199 filed an unfair labor practice complaint about it with the National Labor Relations Board, the union spokeswoman said. It brought in staff from its other facilities outside the state for the day, she said.
Ascension Living, based in St. Louis, is a subsidiary of Ascension, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit Catholic health-care systems. It runs 54 “senior living communities,” located in 12 states and Washington, D.C., with a total of 10,000 residents. In its list of values, it puts “Service of the poor: Generosity of spirit, especially for persons most in need” first.
The Ascension parent company, which runs 142 hospitals, reported $5.7 billion in net income in the 2021 fiscal year, Becker’s Hospital Weekly reported last September. Its operating revenue was $27.2 billion, up $1.9 billion from fiscal 2020, when it had a net loss of $1.04 billion. Its net operating income in 2021 was $676 million.
Ascension received $1.8 billion in federal pandemic aid in the 12-month period that ended March 31, 2021. The Axios news website described the company that year as “essentially a hedge fund that also happens to run hospitals and other care facilities.”
“Ascension has the money to provide its nurses and health-care workers with what they need to care for our patients,” the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals bargaining team at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee wrote in a letter to Ascension Wisconsin CEO Bernie Sherry in late January. “It is now commonplace to see fellow nurses and health-care professionals breaking down in tears at work, overwhelmed and exhausted….Better pay for nurses and health-care workers, coupled with sincere and concrete improvements to staffing, will go a long way to address this staffing crisis that is keeping patients out of hospital beds and away from the care they need.”
The workers at Our Lady of Peace, whose contract expired Dec. 31, will return to the bargaining table March 21, according to 1199.
“We’re ready and willing to keep striking,” Jacqulyn Vincent, a licensed practical nurse for 15 years, told LaborPress.
“How can you treat your workers like this when your motto is ‘help the poor?’” she asks. “The only way to get more people in here is to pay higher wages.”