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Workers at 14 Pennsylvania nursing homes go on strike

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.

Hundreds of workers from 14 Pennsylvania nursing homes went on strike Friday after contract negotiations failed to produce a deal, frustrating state officials who recently approved an aid package meant to bolster staff recruitment and retention in the long-term care industry.

About 700 unionized workers walked off the job in a dispute over pay, benefits and staffing levels. Photos and video on social media showed picket lines going up outside many of the homes, with workers carrying signs and wearing the purple T-shirts of their union, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

“Our goal has always been — and continues to be — to get a fair contract that invests in this entire workforce and will meaningfully address the staffing crisis,” said Matthew Yarnell, SEIU president.

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He accused the nursing home operators of “failing to create the kind of wage scales we’ve been able to achieve with other providers.”

Talks began Thursday morning and ended early Friday without an agreement, with no new negotiations scheduled. The strike impacted homes in a dozen counties throughout the state.

Nursing homes have long struggled with high turnover, which the COVID-19 pandemic made worse, and some facilities were forced to close or downsize because of lagging Medicaid reimbursements, according to trade groups.

State lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf recently hiked Medicaid payments to nursing homes by nearly $300 million annually and sent another $130 million in federal coronavirus aid to help them hire and retain workers. The additional Medicaid funding represents a 17.5% increase, or about $35 more per resident per day.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, called the strike “unfortunate and completely avoidable" in light of the new funding.

She said the package had bipartisan support “and was celebrated by both industry and the workforce. Now, less than 60 days after the governor’s signature on this historic legislation, we’re hearing of select nursing home operators who are refusing to commit to the types of investments this funding was intended to support.”

The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents for-profit nursing homes, noted the increased Medicaid reimbursements do not kick in until January, and the American Rescue Plan money has not yet been distributed.

“While providers, (without) distributed funds, are negotiating worker contracts to support higher wages, they also need to sustain operations and have the financial means to support a new increased staffing minimum that requires hiring more workers,” the group tweeted.

The group also said the union is making new wage demands that were not accounted for in the July funding deal.

Donna Pronio, a certified nursing assistant at Shenandoah Heights nursing home in Schuylkill County, was among about 30 workers on a picket line Friday. She said the workers have been without a contract since the beginning of the year.

“The money we fought for in Harrisburg, we felt should be a talking point and something to put toward the residents and workers. But they still haven’t bargained in good faith,” Pronio said in a phone interview. “We’re just trying to get recognized and appreciated.”

Most of the nursing homes are operated by two companies, Comprehensive Healthcare and Priority Healthcare.

Priority used agency staff to fill shifts vacated by the striking workers, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which counts Priority as a member.

“It is important to remember that the health care workers arriving at these facilities are there to care for the residents,” said Zach Shamberg, the trade group’s president and CEO. “We are asking those on the picket lines and the general public to honor that and support them while negotiations between the union and providers continue.”

Unionized workers employed by Guardian Healthcare reached agreement on a contract earlier this week, averting strike plans at 10 Guardian nursing homes.

Pennsylvania has about 700 licensed nursing homes.

Updated: September 2, 2022 at 4:44 PM EDT
Updates with reaction from governor's office.