Hundreds of Twin Cities nursing home workers plan one-day strike, more to join

A nursing assistant wheeled a resident to lunch.
Nursing home workers across the Twin Cities are planning a one-day strike to protest being overworked, understaffed and underpaid.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News 2015

Updated: 3:30 p.m.

Nursing home workers across the Twin Cities will be voting Wednesday and Thursday to authorize a strike.

They will join around 600 workers from seven Twin Cities nursing homes that announced Tuesday they will stage a one-day strike on March 5 to protest being overworked, understaffed and underpaid.

So far, workers at ten nursing homes will strike, including: Saint Therese Senior Living in New Hope; the Estates nursing homes in Excelsior, Fridley and Roseville; the Villas at The Cedars in St. Louis Park; Cerenity Humboldt in St. Paul and the Villas in Robbinsdale.

Staff at these facilities say they are burning out from taking extra shifts because of staffing shortages and aren’t getting the wages or benefits they deserve.

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Jamie Gulley is the President of SEIU Health Care for Minnesota and Iowa, the union representing these nursing home workers. Travis Burth is a union member has worked for three years at Cerenity at Humboldt Nursing Home. He currently works there as a chef and has been part of the push at the Capitol to improve conditions for nursing home workers.

Gulley and Burth joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to discuss what’s next for the nursing home strikes.

MPR News reached out to leaders of the nursing homes with workers striking for this story and did not hear back with comments by the time of this interview.

Cerenity Senior Care said in a statement it supports “SEIU Healthcare Minnesota’s position that our associates deserve a wage increase. Associates who work in senior living communities are hardworking, compassionate people who are committed to the care of Minnesota’s elders.”

It also said the Legislature needs to fund higher wages for caregivers:

“Benedictine has invested resources and continues to advocate with the Minnesota Legislature for increased funding to raise wages and ensure safe settings and high quality of life for seniors, their families and the dedicated associates working in senior living communities,” Cerenity Senior Care’s statement said.

“Humboldt has been conducting good faith negotiations for some time and have offered economic incentives at levels higher than market trends. Cerenity-Humboldt will continue to make every effort to reach a satisfactory settlement with our associates represented by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.”

“We continue to be communication with the union and hope to return to the bargaining table soon to reach an agreement.If the union chooses to strike, we are prepared and will be providing our residents with the care they need and desire,” it said.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Nursing home workers across the Twin Cities will be voting today and tomorrow to authorize a strike. They'll join around 600 workers from seven Twin Cities nursing homes who will stage a one day strike, March 5th, to protest understaffed conditions, being overworked and paid low wages. So far, striking workers include those at Saint Therese Senior Living in New Hope, The Estates nursing homes in Excelsior, Fridley, and Roseville, The Villas at The Cedars in St. Louis Park, Cerenity Humboldt in St. Paul, and The Villas in Robbinsdale.

Staff at these facilities say they're burning out from taking extra shifts, because of staffing shortages, and they are not getting the wages or benefits they deserve. Jamie Gulley is the president of SEIU Health Care for Minnesota and Iowa, that's the union representing these nursing home workers. Travis Birth is a union member who has worked for three years at Cerenity at Humboldt nursing home. He currently works there as a chef, and has been part of the push at the Capitol to improve conditions for nursing home workers. Jamie and Travis welcome to the program.

TRAVIS BIRTH: Thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Appreciate your time. Thank you. Jamie, can I start with you?

JAMIE GULLEY: That'd be fine. Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: Great. Can you lay out exactly what the union's demanding of these seven nursing homes?

TRAVIS BIRTH: Yes, we are demanding $25 minimum wage from the nursing home industry, as well as health care that is affordable for our families, and a retirement plan for the workers to look forward to when they are done with their career in nursing homes?

INTERVIEWER: Why a strike for just one day, what's behind that calculus?

TRAVIS BIRTH: As health care workers, we are we are mindful of the relationship we have with the residents in these nursing homes. We take care of them day in and day out, on the weekends, and on holidays. And for many of us, they feel like family.

So taking this action to go on strike, even for one day, it's a hard decision for us to make. We think it's important to make that decision, however, because of the stakes and what's at issue. And what really is at issue here is that the conditions for workers in nursing homes have deteriorated such that we we're working short, we're working doubles, we're working many days in a row, workers reporting working 20, 30 days in a row. And it's just not sustainable, and so we are taking this action to highlight the conditions in nursing homes and to call for change.

INTERVIEWER: Travis, I know you're on the line, so your work, in, short many of your colleagues working doubles, maybe you're doing the same thing as a chef in the kitchen there, tell us about what's happening in your life as a worker in one of the nursing homes?

TRAVIS BIRTH: So, yeah, one thing we are struggling in my facility, is our short staffedness, and just not being able to keep people enough to work with us, because people do end up just quitting, because of payments, and stuff like that. So I'm working a coach shift, but I'm also picking up server shifts, you know I'm just all over the place, doing whatever I can to help out the kitchen staff, and just make sure that we get stuff done.

INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm. Can I ask, how much do you make an hour right now?

TRAVIS BIRTH: As of right now for me, I make 20 bucks an hour.

INTERVIEWER: OK. And the union's talking about $25 an hour. How do you think that will help you and your colleagues, that increase, perhaps attract more people to the field?

TRAVIS BIRTH: For sure, yeah, it would. It would also just be able to keep people longer to work with us, because right now servers and stuff, they are not even making 20 bucks an hour. So if we get minimum wage up to 20, 25 bucks an hour, it'll be able to keep more people in, and bring more people in for us.

INTERVIEWER: Now Jamie we should say that I know there was a survey that was taken last fall, at more than 100 nursing homes across the state, and that found that half make less than $20 per hour. I mean, what's the general wage that these workers are making?

JAMIE GULLEY: That's a great question. And it is true, 49% of workers in the industry report making less than $20 an hour, and fully 80% make less than $25 an hour. We see the average wages for dietary workers, housekeeping staff, linen staff, the very important roles, all less than $20 an hour. Nursing assistants, the average is less than $21 an hour. And these just aren't wages that are going to bring people into the industry to take care of our seniors. And we need fundamental change, so that we can recruit people and get the staff that the residents deserve.

INTERVIEWER: So help me out here, last session, we were covering this issue. It didn't get a lot of publicity to be honest with you, but the legislature passed, I think it was $300 million in direct funding for nursing homes, 75 million, it was a lot of money for workplace incentives for bonuses and the like, there was a loan program I believe, is that money getting down to the workers, Jamie?

JAMIE GULLEY: It's a great question. For many of the nursing homes, that's one-time money that's being able to be used for either wage supplements, or for bonuses. But it doesn't go to the core question of the bottom line. I think there is a role for the state to consider with respect to nursing home funding. But I think it's also true that many of these employers, the cost for a resident care, they're making a lot of money also.

And that money is just not getting to the workers. You see the costs increasing for rent payments, to the building, to the management fees, and to the executive salaries, but workers always seem to be the last ones to get paid. And we are trying to fundamentally change that and demand a new deal for the nursing home workers here in Minnesota.

TRAVIS BIRTH: You know, Travis, my dad was in a nursing home in Northern Minnesota. I remember one guy by himself, on shift, and he had, Oh my goodness, I think he had 10 residents he was trying to deal with. I remember this picture of him, pushing one resident in a wheelchair down the hall, and he was dragging another patient in a wheelchair behind him.

And he was trying to get him to the dining room, I believe, if I remember correctly. And I'm curious, he just looked like he was just going back and forth, trying to get these residents to where they needed to go. Has your work environment put your safety at risk at all, or residents safety at risk at all, what are you hearing from maybe your colleagues up on the floors?

Oh, I've even seen it where you only have one aide per whole floor, and they're trying to take care of, I want to say, maybe 30 or 40 residents on the floor. And for sure, it's putting our health at risk, people can't take care of the residents, the residents health are at risk, so, yeah, it's getting dangerous.

INTERVIEWER: Jamie, what stories have you heard from other workers about their experiences at some of these nursing homes?

JAMIE GULLEY: Yeah, unfortunately it's all too common for us to be working short, as the wages just don't pay enough to recruit new people into the industry, and to retain those who do join us. So, unfortunately, those shortages continue.

INTERVIEWER: Travis, what are you hoping for when it comes to the bottom line for this strike? What do you hope will happen?

TRAVIS BIRTH: I just hope that the wages go up, we get safer working conditions. And it all just comes down to wages, we cannot keep staffing with the wages that we have. We're not going to be able to keep people, we're not going to be able to bring new employees in, which means it's just not going to be any safer for the residents. And I just hope that the wages go up, so people can take care of the residents.

INTERVIEWER: I don't know, you're probably not able to maybe see or talk to many of the nursing home residents families, and I don't know, Jamie, if you have anything to add to this, but Travis have you what do families understand what's going on here, and are they behind you, or are they a little bit worried about this strike?

TRAVIS BIRTH: I can't be 100% honest with you there, because, like you said, I'm not really able to talk to the residents families, unfortunately, I wish I could, but I am hoping that they understand what's going on, and they do back us in this strike.

INTERVIEWER: Jamie, have you heard anything?

JAMIE GULLEY: I agree with everything Travis said, so we are not enlisting residents into our dispute with the employers, with respect to our contracts. But we are hopeful, and believe that we will have the support of residents and families. They know that our working conditions are the living conditions for the people that we care for. And when things go better for the nursing assistants, and for the LPNs and for all the people doing the care day in and day out, that's going to result in better care for their family members and their loved ones. So it's going to be a one day strike, but we hope to make a big difference, moving forward, every day in the future.

INTERVIEWER: I asked Travis this question, I'll ask you this too Jamie, seven strikes at once, that is one of the biggest job actions against nursing homes in state history, I think, right? So bottom line here, what do you want to have happen at the end of this one-day strike?

JAMIE GULLEY: Great question. And yesterday, we announced seven nursing homes going on strike, that number is up to 10 nursing homes today with, 750 nursing homes altogether now committing to go on strike on March 5th. Our hope is that our message will get out, and that we'll get the support that we need to raise wages and make a difference for the caregivers.

INTERVIEWER: Gosh, I think you also mentioned in this news conference yesterday, that there's this larger theme of labor groups throughout the state working together. I believe unions covering nearly 15,000 workers, are authorizing strike votes, and actions are planned to-- you have your action, and there are some other things happening out there, high rents, that kind of thing. All these unions are working together, has that happened before?

JAMIE GULLEY: I don't believe it has. We did notice, a while ago, or more than a year ago that many of us had contracts that were expiring at the same time. And so we started trying to imagine what we could accomplish if we lifted up our voices at the same time. And so it will be that first week of March.

I think you might see activity from other unions taking similar making similar decisions. But for nursing homes, we give a 10-day notice to our employers to make sure that there is continuity of care for the residents during our action. So we're, I, think first out of the gate for getting that notice out to the public.

INTERVIEWER: All right, Jamie and Travis, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

TRAVIS BIRTH: Thank you for having us.

INTERVIEWER: We've been talking to Jamie Gulley the president of SEIU Health Care for Minnesota and Iowa. Travis Birth has been with us, he is an SEIU Health Care union member, and a worker at the Humboldt nursing home. Now we want you to know, we reached out to the leaders of the nursing homes, with workers striking for this story, and didn't hear back with comments by the time of this interview.

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