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After striking for a week-plus, workers at 22 nursing homes have a contract

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 at Beaver Valley Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center reached an agreement with Guardian Healthcare, and therefore avoided a strike with the nursing home operators.

After coordinating a strike across 22 locations, about 700 Pennsylvania nursing home employees have a contract.

The majority of workers are at Comprehensive Healthcare and Priority Healthcare nursing homes, who were on strike for seven and eight days, respectively. In addition, staff at one facility operated by Shenandoah Heights Healthcare in Schuylkill County were off the job for nine days.

While each nursing home had a separate contract with its unionized workforce, employees at various worksites coordinated their organizing efforts. This resulted in contracts with higher wages, more staff time for residents, and better health insurance.

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"I think this is going to make other companies look at us and see what change we can bring," said Lindsey Burns, a licensed practical nurse at The Grove of New Castle, who was on the bargaining team. "If this can be done in my facility, it can be done at other places too."

Staff at Guardian nursing homes were also poised to strike before reaching agreements before workers walked off the job on Sept. 2.

When employees at health care facilities strike, management brings in contract workers to fill their jobs. The cost of these replacement workers is often covered by strike insurance. So while Burns and her colleagues knew the seniors they care for would be alright, she said it was hard to turn over their residents' care to strangers.

SEIU's president Matt Yarnell said workers decided to go forward with the strike and stand up to management as a reckoning against what they see as bad behavior that harms residents and caregivers.

"I think creating, you know, some chaos and a real urgency for employers [shows] that we're not messing around here," said Yarnell. "You've got to do the right thing."

WESA was unable to reach Priority, Comprehensive, or Shenandoah Heights for comment.

The collective action comes after a hike in the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate.

While SEIU joined forces with the nursing home industry to lobby for this increase in July, the union contended that management at the striking facilities wasn’t using these funds to enhance the direct care of residents by improving staff compensation and working conditions.

"Moving forward, providers and the union must continue to work together to support care for our most vulnerable population –– that includes not only the understanding of the need to support our workers but also the need for approved funding to support daily operations,' said Zach Shamberg, the head of Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents both for-profit and nonprofit nursing homes in Pennsylvania.

The agreements expire in May and June of 2025. While he's happy with what SEIU accomplished, with future contracts, Yarnell would like to see additional improvements, particularly with retirement benefits.

“These are really hard jobs…so there’s a lot of work to do.”

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.