Nursing homes labor dispute continues amid pandemic 

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More than a week after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stepped in to help resolve an ongoing labor dispute between 1,600 nursing home workers and 18 employers located throughout the state, she said she looks forward to an agreement. 

“I’m hopeful that we can avoid a strike,” Whitmer said on Monday in Detroit. “Nursing homes are an important part of our overall health care community. We’ve made some strides. There are still negotiations happening. I’m just trying to make sure that we avoid a strike and keep residents safe and make sure that the workforce is safe, as well.” 

This is taking place as about one-third of coronavirus deaths in Michigan have occurred in nursing homes, which includes residents and staff, according to the state’s COVID-19 website. 

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been working to negotiate dozens of contracts with several nursing homes in metro Detroit. It represents 65 nursing homes and more than 6,000 nursing home workers in Michigan. There are approximately 444 nursing homes in the state.

In an Aug.16 letter to David Gunsberg, lead negotiator on behalf of Beaconshire Nursing Center, and Larry Alcoff, lead negotiator for SEIU Healthcare Michigan, Whitmer said the labor dispute between SEIU Healthcare Michigan and Beaconshire Nursing Center “places frontline workers who care for persons in these facilities at risk” and that the dispute “could have a devastating impact on many people.”

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“Resolving this dispute is critical,” Whitmer added. “Workers must receive a fair wage for the important work they do, and nursing home operators must have a sustainable path forward. For this reason, I strongly encourage all parties to commit to good faith negotiations for at least the next 30 days to find an agreeable solution without taking further economic action such as a strike or lockout.”

Whitmer also sent similar letters to two other nursing home operators, Four Seasons Rehab and Nursing and Villa Healthcare Corp. and the SEIU negotiators who represent workers at those sites. 

Negotiations continue this week. Union workers at several metro Detroit nursing homes have carried out a strike of a few hours on July 20 over pay and health risk concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort was billed as a “Strike for Black Lives.” 

They had planned to continue the strike on Aug.17. But three days prior, Ciena Healthcare Management, Inc. was granted a temporary restraining order against employees at eight of the company’s facilities, ordering them to “immediately cease, desist and refrain from picketing” for seven days.

SEIU members at various sites are calling for increased safety protections such as masks and gloves, amid the COVID-19 crisis. They also want a $15 minimum wage for all service workers, an $18 wage for certified nursing assistants, an end to mandatory overtime and short-staffing, and improved benefits such as health care and paid sick leave. 

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Michigan’s current minimum wage is $9.65 per hour.

“So many nursing home workers are risking their lives to care for the lives of others and their communities,” said Kevin Haney, SEIU Healthcare Michigan vice president. “Their commitment and dedication are to the most vulnerable – residents who are senior citizens, people with disabilities, and their family members.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Robert Gordon in June issued an order regarding long-term care facilities. It required regular testing and timely and accurate reporting of cases, deaths, distribution of personal protective equipment and a plan to address staffing shortages.

“We’re doing everything in our power to protect nursing facility residents through mandatory testing, support for adequate staffing, and new efforts at infection control,” Gordon said at the time. 

Calls to Beaconshire Nursing Center, Ciena Healthcare Management, Inc., Four Seasons Rehab and Nursing, and Villa Healthcare Corp. were not immediately returned.

As of last Wednesday, the latest data available, the state reported 8,049 confirmed resident cases and 2,089 resident deaths; and 4,226 confirmed staff cases and 21 staff deaths. 

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Michigan ranks 11th in the nation and the District of Columbia in the number of nursing homes deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Healthcare Safety Network. New Jersey; Massachusetts; Connecticut; Rhode Island; Delaware; Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; Maryland; Louisiana; and New York rank ahead of Michigan.

Haney applauded Whitmer’s effort to help resolve the matter but continued SEIU’s call for nursing home operators to agree to workers’ demands.  

“It’s long overdue for nursing home workers to be put first and thought of as essential,” said Haney. “CNAs [certified nurses’ assistants], housekeeping, laundry, activity aides, office staff, cooks, environmental and dietary are joining together so they can care for their families, have their voices heard and their rights respected.” 

With respect to responding to Whitmer request, Haney pointed out that Trece Andrews, a laundry worker at a Ciena Healthcare Management, Inc. site, represents workers’ voices on Whitmer’s COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force for Nursing Homes.

“Workers also deserve a fair seat at the table so that they can lift up issues that matter the most to them,” Haney said. “… And we look forward to continuing that work with the governor to ensure that our workers receive a fair contract, and we will honor the commitment to negotiations.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.