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‘They said we were superheroes.’ Workers strike at 2 Lehigh Valley nursing homes, seeking a piece of $600 million in pandemic funding

Morning Call - 9/2/2022

Once, not too long ago amid the throes of the pandemic, Niim Lassiter and fellow nursing home workers appreciated the praises heaped their way.

“They said we were superheroes,” Lassiter said, “and now they’re treating us different.”

On the Friday before the traditional holiday that celebrates the labor movement, Lassiter stood outside the Easton nursing facility where he works, joined by joined fellow union workers, as well as 700 statewide at 14 nursing homes, in denouncing their corporate owners and demanding better wages and benefits. A strike began Friday at similar facility in Monroe County.

The dispute centers around how much money owners have spent on staffing and care, according to the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania union.

At issue, too, is how much of $600 million earmarked by Gov. Tom Wolf and state lawmakers will actually go to workers who say they have been toiling longer hours during the pandemic. The legislation, according to a July state news release, comes with accountability to ensure that 70% of costs at medical-assistance-enrolled nursing facilities goes toward “resident care and resident-related care.” The union believes the 70% should go to staffing as well as bedside care.

“I feel like, we fought to get this grant, 30% is going to [home operators], and 70% is supposed to go to the bedside,” said Lassiter, wearing a sticker on his shirt that said, “Respect us. Protect us. Pay us.”

The Easton resident is an activity aide at The Gardens for Memory Care in Easton, where his job includes interacting with residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

During a brief rally, Lassiter and other workers who spoke said they are unified to obtain better wages, health care and staffing.

“When you have corporate greed going on, this is kind of what you get.”

The union wants substantial wage increases for existing employees, with starting pay from $16 an hour to $25 per hour for various positions. They also are seeking additional increases to recognize longevity and seniority to retain experienced caregivers and honor their years of service; employer-paid health insurance; and protection of the existing labor contract in the event of a sale.

Lassiter, who said he has worked at The Gardens for more than 20 years earns $19 an hour and was hoping for a $3 an hour increase in the new contract. The company’s best offer, a 75-cent-per-hour wage hike, was a “slap in the face” for someone who has worked many years, he said.

“What am I going to do with 75 cents, when the rent is going up, gas is going up, groceries are going up?” asked Jeannette “Suki” Mulero, a longtime dietary technician at the Easton home.

Nursing homes have long struggled with high turnover, which COVID-19 made worse. Some facilities were forced to close or downsize because of lagging Medicaid reimbursements, according to The Associated Press, citing trade groups.

Kyle G. Newfeld, administrator at The Gardens, said about 130 employees work at the 115-bed facility. In a statement released later, he said “some” SEIU employees chose to strike despite “high wage increases” offered. He also said The Gardens is fully staffed and providing care to residents.

The Easton workers began striking about 6 a.m. Friday, said Emily Dong, an SEIU Healthcare spokesperson. They said they have been working under an existing contract that expired in July 2021. The union said the latest round of negotiations started Thursday morning and ended early Friday without a deal. No new talks were scheduled.

State Sen. Lisa M. Boscola, D-Northampton and Lehigh, said in a statement read by aide Meghan Lago that her mother moved last year into an assisted living facility, and Boscola has watched employees work hard and without complaint.

“The care and compassion you show the residents is evident and needs to be appreciated through a good wage and benefits,” she said. “We need to keep good workers in this field, otherwise, there will be no one left to care for our loved ones.”

Other area state lawmakers who attended the rally were Democratic state Reps. Robert Freeman of Northampton County Jeanne McNeill of Lehigh County.

Pennsylvania has about 700 licensed nursing homes. The for-profit Easton home is owned by Maybrook-P Easton Opco LLC of Lawrence, New York, state Department of Health records show. Besides the Easton facility, workers walked off the job at The Meadows at Stroud in East Stroudsburg.

Contact Morning Call journalist Anthony Salamone at .

Nursing home statement

Here is the full statement from Kyle G. Newfeld, administrator at The Gardens for Memory Care in Easton.

“Some SEIU employees have walked off their jobs after high wage increases offered. The Gardens for Memory Care at Easton is fully staffed and providing care to residents.

“After 11 bargaining sessions, some SEIU 1199 employees have walked off their jobs. We want the public to know that we did not want our employees to follow the union and abandon their jobs. We believe it is irresponsible in these challenging times. Most importantly, we are fully staffed and providing care to our residents.

“We remain committed to our employees and made every attempt to reach a new contract with SEIU and employees. Our goal is to raise wages for our employees to assist them in these challenging times. Our offer involved the following:

•Wage increases of as much as $4 an hour for some categories.

•Certified Nurses Aides were offered over 29% in increases, based on years of experience. That means many CNAs will be earning over $20 per hour this year.

•Licensed Practical Nurses were offered over 17% in increases, based on years of experience.

•Cooks, based on years of experience, were offered over 28% in increases.

•An Employer Health Plan with better benefits and reduced monthly premiums, which significantly lowers the employee’s out-of-pocket cost on co-pays and medications.

“Instead of embracing wage increases for their members, the union made demands regarding neutrality and other terms which have nothing to do with the employees.

“We will not stop caring about our employees and will continue to provide necessary services to our residents. We hope the union and its leadership will work with us and stop proposing items which have absolutely nothing to do with the employees.”

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