Workers suspend strike, commit to working with Whitmer administration and industry CEOs to reach fair resolution that protects workers, residents
DETROIT — Essential nursing home workers across metro Detroit, who are working on the front lines of the pandemic for poverty wages with low staffing levels and inadequate PPE, agreed to delay their planned strike after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged SEIU Healthcare Michigan and nursing home chains to negotiate toward a fair contract.
“Senior citizens, and especially those who live in congregate care facilities, are especially vulnerable [to COVID-19]. Our frontline workers who care for persons in these facilities are also at risk,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in letters to representatives of SEIU Healthcare Michigan and negotiators for nursing home owners.
“Workers must receive a fair wage for the important work they do,” Gov. Whitmer continued.
“Our union of Michigan nursing home workers, no matter where they work — CNAs, housekeeping, laundry, activity aides, office staff, cooks, environmental and dietary — are risking their lives to care for the lives of others,” said SEIU Healthcare Michigan President Andrea Acevedo. “It’s long overdue for them to be put first and thought of as essential, and they need what’s essential in their contracts: living wages, safe staffing, paid family leave, proper PPE, and healthcare. Nursing home owners need to respect them, protect them and pay them a living wage.”
The day before the governor issued her letter, a judge issued a seven-day temporary restraining order to Ciena Healthcare that barred workers from striking.
Detroit nursing home workers, most of whom are Black women, say owners’ legal maneuvers to block their strike are just the latest example of the crisis in nursing homes and among essential workers across the country.
“Instead of using their millions to pay us and protect us, the owners of Ciena homes paid for lawyers to try to stop workers from using our voices,” said Mo’Nae Rawls, front desk receptionist at Omni Continuing Care. “Nearly 2,000 nursing home workers and residents have died from COVID-19 in Michigan alone. We delivered strike notices because it was our best tool to fight for our residents and our families. But we’re not sitting down; we’ll be back.”
Workers at 16 homes across metro Detroit — all but two operated by for-profit nursing home chains Villa, Ciena, and Charles Dunn — delivered strike notices on August 6, calling on owners to improve staffing levels so that residents are not put at risk, provide adequate PPE for the duration of the pandemic, pay frontline workers a living wage, and take responsibility for the crisis of COVID-19 within nursing homes.
“Our members are disappointed because it’s been over a year now, and management has failed to meet our demands. However, we are still going to keep fighting,” said Iyone Pruiett, a union steward with SEIU Healthcare Michigan and a CNA at Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing. “We are asking for Charles Dunn to sit down at the negotiation table and give us a fair contract. We know it’s just the beginning and we will prevail. In 18 years, I’ve never seen my members so involved. They are ready to make a difference.”
In homes where workers planned to strike, at least 1,311 COVID-19 cases and 219 deaths have been reported among residents and staff.
Nursing home workers — from certified nursing assistants (CNAs) to housekeeping, laundry, dietary, environmental and office staff — who have risked their lives to care for the elderly and immunocompromised throughout the pandemic said they voted to strike on behalf of themselves and their families, to whom they fear passing along the virus, as well as residents and their families.
“Coming together in our union is key to holding nursing home owners accountable and making Detroit a place where everyone can thrive. If we’re not safe and healthy on the job, neither are our residents or our families,” said Trece Andrews, a laundry worker at Regency at St. Clair Shores. “We’re dealing with three overlapping crises — COVID-19, corporate greed and racism — and owners need to prioritize people over profits.”
In Detroit, where the COVID-19 virus has devastated communities of color and the majority of nursing home workers are Black women, nursing home workers aim to draw attention to racial justice disparities inherent to their fight.
“The overwhelming majority of us are Black, and we are being forced to work through the crisis on poverty wages and without sufficient PPE at a time when Black people are getting sick and dying at higher rates,” said Lisa Elliott, a nursing assistant at Regency at St. Clair Shores. “We’re called essential, but we’re treated like we’re expendable. We’re calling on nursing home owners to pay us a living wage so we can afford to get healthcare just like we provide it, and put in place proper safety protocols and guarantee PPE throughout the pandemic.”
Nursing home industry under fire
For-profit nursing homes have drawn renewed scrutiny in recent months, as COVID-19 data have shown nursing homes as consistent hotspots for the virus nationwide and accusations have surfaced of nursing homes misusing billions of federal aid dollars allocated through pandemic relief packages. But problems in the nursing home industry go deeper than its coronavirus response.
In Michigan, 69% of nursing homes represented by Villa have received a one- or two-star rating from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Villa’s Michigan homes have received 30 federal penalties and almost $600,000 in fines over the last three years.
And while a third of Ciena homes have performed poorly on CMS quality and staffing metrics, Ciena CEO Mohammad Qazi is reported to be developing a $377 million condominium project in Midtown Detroit. Qazi paid $1.25 million in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements in a healthcare fraud case settlement in 2007 and lost a whistleblower case with $705,000 awarded to the plaintiff in 2011.
Nursing home employees rise up, demand owners #ProtectAllWorkers
Detroit workers’ strike vote followed months of advocacy, protests, and strikes on the part of nursing home workers nationwide who are committed to doing whatever it takes to secure health, safety and economic protections. They’ve launched demands for government and facility owners; testified in essential worker hearings in North Carolina, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida; and joined the Strike for Black Lives on July 20 to show how the fights for racial and economic justice are linked and have become even more urgent in the wake of a national reckoning on racial justice and the current public health emergency ravaging the country.
“I’m ready to go on strike because I’ve seen firsthand how Black folks in nursing homes — both residents and workers — have borne the brunt of COVID-19, yet our employer has failed time and time again to do what they need to do to protect us,” said Toyai Anderson, a certified nursing assistant at Hartford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in July. “I’m Black when I go to work and I’m Black when I come home to my community — I deserve dignity and respect in the workplace as well as in the streets. It’s time to come together as workers and win both economic and racial justice.”
Detroit nursing home workers have been vocal throughout the pandemic, speaking out about unsafe conditions for workers and residents alike. In June, SEIU Healthcare Michigan memorialized the 1,900 nursing home residents and 20 workers who have passed away from COVID-19 with an action on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, a historic site where nursing home workers organized and took action to demand better working conditions in the 1980-90s.
As a result of nursing home workers taking action, SEIU Healthcare Michigan union steward Trece Andrews was named to Gov. Whitmer’s Michigan Nursing Homes COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force, representing frontline workers across the state who have been impacted during the pandemic.
The task force is charged with analyzing relevant data on the threat of COVID-19 in nursing homes, making recommendations to the governor on improving data quality and releasing periodic reports to the governor on its findings and recommendations.
“I bring a perspective from the front lines of the nursing homes that industry and government officials don’t necessarily have,” Andrews said. “Workers are responsible for executing any safety measures. If you don’t include us in the decision-making process, even the best safety measures will fall short. I will bring this perspective to the task force.”