At 10:30 am, about 20 employees wearing the purple shirts of their SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania union took to the grounds outside the medical facility, 500 Washington St., for a news conference on the picket line. The group carried signs that read, “We Say No To Corporate Greed,” “Honk 4 Workers” and “Union Strong.” They chanted, “They say cut back, we say fight back.” Passing motorists yelled out words of encouragement from open windows and honked.
The workers with SEIU, or Service Employees International Union, began striking this past Friday at 14 statewide facilities, including the Easton facility. They walked off the job after at least 11 bargaining sessions, the Gardens for Memory Care at Easton administration previously said in a statement.
The union group told lehighvalleyive.com Wednesday they’ll continue to strike until contract negotiations are reached. Sticking points have included better wages; greater transparency in how outside contractors are used; and guarantees that any successor company that buys a nursing home facility will abide by existing contracts. They said the latest hurdle in negotiations is the health plan change for all striking workers proposed by the Easton facility’s owner, Priority Healthcare Group.
Currently, Gardens for Memory Care at Easton workers represent the only group on strike who are on Priority’s health insurance plan — a switch they were forced to make a few years ago, they said. Striking workers at other statewide facilities receive Highmark health insurance. All are now being asked to move to the Priority plan, the workers say.
Gardens for Memory Care at Easton workers said in the news conference that leaving through the coverage, they face a lack of area participating medical providers, them with huge bills and little affordable access to their own physicians.
Niim Lassiter, an aid who’s worked at the Easton facility for the past 24 years, said he tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He was out of work for three months as a result of the illness and struggled with the Priority health plan to gain proper coverage. The result was hundreds in bills he had to foot out of pocket, he said.
“I was able to get care, but my insurance from Priority didn’t cover the costs and I got multiple bills sent to me,” Lassiter said. “It was ridiculous…. The insurance isn’t taken in Easton at most places either. Whenever I go to the doctors and give my insurance, they look at me like I got four heads.”
Lassiter claims the company is focused more on profits than its workers. This is despite union representatives working with lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf to secure $378 million through the American Rescue Plan Act federal pandemic relief package, in addition to $600 million in new funding for nursing homes secured by the Legislature in this fiscal year’s budget.
“Priority is not putting the taxpayer dollars where they need to put them,” Lassiter said. “Priority is not bargaining in good faith.”
Charles Thomas, a certified nursing assistant in Easton, said he suffered head injury a few years ago and was out of work for a year. The insurance by Priority didn’t cover any of his bills, resulting in $100,000 in out-of-pocket costs, Thomas said.
“This was a very hard time in my life; I got very stressed out, had panic attacks and got calls from collection agencies because I was behind on paying those medical bills,” Thomas said. “I’m sure it affected my credit. On top of that, I had to learn to do everything all over — I had to learn to speak, walk, eat. I’m lucky that I got through, but I still feel the impacts of that now.”
Now, Thomas said when he’s sent medical bills, he doesn’t even open them because he knows he can’t pay.
Workers in other statewide facilities said they fear the insurance switch.
Wendy Curcio, a worker at a facility in Stroudsburg, Monroe County, said she’s been diagnosed with two different types of cancer and must take chemotherapy for the rest of her life. She also would be forced to pay out of pocket for chemo treatments, as well as travel to New York for appointments, under the new proposed insurance plan, she said.
“If we changed insurance, it’s not a good thing for anybody,” Curcio said.
Nereida Ferrer, a dietary worker at Rose City Health and Rehabilitation in Lancaster, is a diabetic patient who also has high blood pressure. She’s concerned the Priority plan won’t cover all her prescriptions and physician appointments.
“I shouldn’t have to travel hours away just to see a doctor and get my prescriptions and insulin,” she said, continuing later to say: “I need good health insurance to stay healthy in order to take care of my residents.”
Union members claim they have requested Priority produce an Impact Report, outlining how workers would be affected if forced off the Highmark Insurance plan and onto the Priority plan. Priority has yet to provide that information, they said.
No new negotiations have been scheduled, the union workers said Wednesday.
In a statement Friday at the outset of the strike, Gardens for Memory Care at Easton said it is “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.” The company’s offer involved the following, the administration said:
- “Wage increases of as much as $4 an hour for some categories.
- “Certified nurses aids 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.”
The facility’s administration did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment Wednesday.
According to its website, Gardens for Memory Care at Easton cares for those living with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Amenities include a resident store; chapel; serene room; and private patio area with pond.
To improve staffing and care, workers currently are demanding through union negotiations:
- Substantial increases in wages for all existing employees to retain them at the bedside, and minimum wages in all job titles: $16/hour for dietary, housekeeping, and other ancillary staff; $20/hour for certified nursing assistants; $25/hour for licensed practical nurses.
- Additional increases to recognize longevity and seniority to retain experienced caregivers and honor their years of service.
- Employer-paid health insurance.
- Protection of the existing contract in the event of a sale (“Successorship Language”).
- Ensure employers follow new state regulations governing staffing in nursing homes.
- A written commitment not to interfere in any way with the rights of workers who choose to form their union to demand accountability from private equity firms and bad-actor nursing home chains.
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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at [email protected].