They held pre-printed signs calling for fairness and a new contract. They chanted. They blew whistles. They marched in a circle. And they let people wanting to get inside the Citadel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center pass through with a smile.
This was indeed a picket line in front of the Kingsbridge nursing home, but nothing like the one that hit this very facility a decade ago. Instead, according to organizers, the Oct. 10 demonstration was more about letting people know the nurses working at Citadel were doing so without the new contract they’re looking for.
“We have caregivers, in particular our nurses, who are doing the best they can to provide high-quality care, but it’s difficult to do that when you’re working short-staffed and underpaid,” said Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, who represents nurses and maids in the current contract struggle. “It is a burden on their ability to give each resident the attention he or she deserves.”
The most recent contract between 1199SEIU and the Greater New York Healthcare Facilities Association expired last month, and now some 20,000 workers at more than 125 nursing homes throughout New York City, Westchester and Rockland counties, and Long Island are working without a new contract.
The primary sticking points in the negotiations include inadequate staffing at many of the nursing home — placing burdens on the existing nurses and maids — and an annual salary increase of 3 percent over the next three years.
It’s not that the nursing homes don’t want to provide the money, union officials said. Instead, it seems the nursing home owners are waiting to see what kind of state assistance they’ll receive.
Negotiators on the nursing home side did not return requests for comment.
Karleen Moncrieffe, a longtime certified nursing assistant at Citadel, remembers a time when the nursing home had five workers on staff during the day, four in the evening, and three overnight. Now it’s four during the day, three in the evening, and two at night.
“You have two people taking care of 40 people,” Moncrieffe said. “There is work that has to be done, and you have to finish it. You don’t want to leave it. I work nights, and I can’t leave what I do for the day shift, because then they have to do my job on top of their job.”
That means back-breaking work, especially at the Cannon Place facility — through its prior ownership — has had run-ins with the labor union in the past. Especially in 2008, when then owner Helen Sieger reportedly stopped funding health care benefits for the employees there. That sent workers to the street at about the same time Judith Wallace was first hired.
“I started on the 28th of January, and they went on strike in February,” remembers Wallace, who also works as a CNA at the nursing home. “One guy came to me and told me, ‘Let’s go outside,’ but I didn’t know why. But if I did, I would’ve went outside.”
Workers won that battle with management, and Sieger ultimately was arrested for failing to provide workers’ compensation insurance for her 400 employees. Under a law that was passed in 2007, any employer who failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance for businesses that employ more than five people, could be guilty of a felony and face up to four years in prison.
Sieger, who was later indicted on the workers’ compensation violations, died in 2011 while a patient at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, a facility used by the city’s Department of Corrections designed to hold seriously ill inmates.
Nurses and maids have their health care this time around, but know it can be better. In fact, Silva said, the League of Voluntary Hospitals — which represents non-profit nursing homes in the region — finalized a contract in July with terms similar to what workers want from the for-profit nursing homes, like Citadel.
“These workers do the same work as those other workers,” Silva said. “They should be able to get the same wages and the same benefits.”
Even more, while the for-profits say they want to wait to see exactly what Albany is going to do in terms of funding nursing homes for the coming years, the non-profits were able to sign on the dotted line without having to wait.
“If knowing this funding is coming in was good enough for league facilities,” Silva said, “it should be good enough for these nursing homes.”
For now, workers at for-profit nursing homes like Citadel will continue to work under the terms of their recently expired agreement, but that’s not going to stay that way for long, Silva said.
“Our bargaining team has a goal that before Thanksgiving, we will have a contract in place,” she said. “We’re going to work as diligently as we can to bargain and compromise — and when we need to, to hold the line.”
The last thing Wallace wants to see is an actual picket line in front of her job site, with the residents inside not getting all the care they need and deserve.
“All of these people are our family,” she said.
“I become so close to all these residents. It’s just a passion, and I fell in love with my job.”