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Amidst Contract Negotiations, Workers At A Dozen Pennsylvania Nursing Homes Move Closer To Strike

Nursing home workers rally for better working conditions near the Beaver Valley Heathcare and Rehabilitation Center on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.
Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Nursing home workers rally for better working conditions near the Beaver Valley Heathcare and Rehabilitation Center on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

Some 800 Pennsylvania nursing home workers came one step closer to going on strike Monday night, citing low wages and staffing shortages.

SEIU union members at a dozen facilities, including nursing homes in Uniontown, Beaver Falls and Aliquippa, voted to authorize their contract negotiating committees to enact a strike. The committees have not taken that step yet.

“Caregivers were driven to the decision by the growing crisis in [Pennsylvania’s] nursing homes and lack of action to address the perfect storm of unsafe staffing, a global pandemic, and outdated nursing home regulations,” the union said in a press release.

Monday’s vote came amidst multiple ongoing contract negotiations. Each nursing home has a separate contract with employees, even though all but one facility is owned by Guardian Healthcare. Guardian is headquartered in Jefferson County, and is one of the state’s largest providers of rehabilitation and long-term care.

“The safety of our patients, residents, and caregivers is, and always has been, our top priority,” said Guardian in a statement Tuesday. “We are troubled that the SEIU is using our invaluable team of caregivers in an attempt to manipulate the negotiation process.”

Guardian also said that it will continue to provide “the quality of care our residents and their families expect,” if workers do strike. If this occurs, SEIU will first issue a 10-day notice to management.

Mary Orner, a certified nursing assistant in a Guardian facility in Oil City, said she doubted her employer would be able to find enough people to staff the facility if her union were to strike.

“Nobody is knocking at the door to try to get hired,” Orner said, noting that the low wages and working conditions at the nursing home are well known throughout her community.

Orner has worked at the nursing home for nearly 16 years, and makes less than $16 an hour. SEIU said that for a nursing aide like Orner, the union is asking for a minimum wage of $20 an hour.

“On the first day of negotiations …. the company referred to us as wanting to break the industry,” said SEIU’s Molly Brechtel. “People that were really on ground zero during the pandemic deserve a living wage.”

In addition to higher wages and increased staffing levels, SEIU is calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation that ensures financial transparency and accountability on the part of nursing home operators.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.