Nursing Home Strike Called Off, Workers Will Not Walk Out Friday

CHICAGO — Thousands of nursing home workers at dozens of Illinois nursing homes will not walk off the job Friday after their union reached a tentative agreement with nursing home owners on a new contract. The two-year deal brings starting base wages above $15 an hour for more than 10,000 workers at over 100 nursing homes across the state and includes hazard pay for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees of 64 nursing homes represented by SEIU Healthcare were set to strike over demands for better wages, sick leave and adequate personal protective equipment. Negotiators overwhelming supported the tentative agreement, which still must be ratified by all affected member. A vote is expected by May 15.

“Our members stood up and said that ‘enough is enough,'” Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare, said Thursday. “They took on the challenge of advocating for themselves and their residents even in the midst of a pandemic. We know that there is much work left to be done, but we believe we have made some progress.”

Contract improvements include paid sick days for COVID-19 testing, quarantine or illness, as well as language that makes sure employees will not be forced to work without adequate protective gear, according to the union. Workers will also receive a $2 per hour hazard pay bonus during the pandemic.

“We’ve been crying for years to be heard, and we are the front line caregivers to our residents. We’re like family to our residents and we are the voices, especially in a pandemic, for those residents as well as for ourselves,” Francine Rico, a certified nursing assistant and union vice chair, said at a remote news conference after the agreement was reached.

“It wasn’t like we wanted to produce a massive strike, but in order to have our voices heard and, as being family to the residents we take care of, we were put in such a situation,” Rico said.

Laverne Johnson, 65, said the raise in the new contract means she will be able to retire herself someday.

“It was a fight, and it was a hard fight,” said Johnson, who has worked at Wentworth Rehabilitation and Health Care Center the past 10 years. “I didn’t want us to have to go on strike but if that’s what we had to do let them know that we meant business, and that we were tired of being overworked and underpaid and disrespected, and not being able to take care of our residents properly, being understaffed every day, that means victory.”

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A representative of the Illinois Association of Health Care Facilities, the association that represents owners of more than 100 nursing home, said the contract represents the largest wage hike in the organization’s history. The union’s previous contract expired May 1.

“With base pay raises up to 24%, the IAHCF has achieved the Fight for $15 ahead of the city and state for our dedicated employees on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic,” Bob Moliter, CEO of The Alden Network, said in a statement. “This two-year contract includes $2 per hour COVID bonus pay for all 10,000 employees during the duration of the stay-at-home order and beyond, as well as expanded paid sick leave.”

A day before the deal was announced, representatives of the nursing home association said union negotiators turned down an offer that included $2-an-hour hazard pay and base wages for workers outside Chicago rising to $15 in the second year of the deal. Union representatives previously said they sought a one-year contract and a 50 percent hazard pay bonus during the pandemic. According to the nursing home association, the tentative agreement improves the base wage to $15.50 per hour for all staff regardless of location in the second year of the contract.

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“While negotiations have ended, this insidious virus has not,” Molitor said. “We are grateful a walkout was avoided, and that our heroic staff members will continue caring for our vulnerable seniors as we fight this battle together.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health released data Friday showing 44 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois were either staff or residents of long-term care facilities.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat and chief deputy whip, congratulated the nursing home workers for standing up for themselves and seniors at once.

“It’s really, really important for everyone to understand that workers’ safety equals patient safety. It translates immediately, 100 percent,” Schakowsky said. “The workers were telling me stories about having enough protective equipment. Imagine that. Who does that hurt? Of course, it puts their very lives in danger when they go into a room with a COVID-19 patient. But then she goes to another room, or maybe even to another nursing home, spreading it.”

Schakowsky is the chief sponsor of The Quality Care for Nursing Home Residents and Workers During COVID-19 Act Of 2020. The bill would require increased testing, increased reporting of fatalities and PPE, at least two weeks of paid sick leave and other protections. She said she has been working with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee leaders to ensure language from the bill is included in future legislation.

“We have brave workers,” Schakowsky said. “[They’re] standing up and staying, ‘We can do better. We don’t have to wait for this virus to end, because this virus is showing the problems that we’ve been facing, and this is the right time.’ So I’m glad the victory came to these hardworking people who are willing to go forward as essential workers every day and say, ‘I’m going to help my patients, I’m willing to take the risk.’ And now the risk is a little bit lower because they got some benefits, and their patients will benefit too.”

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