Once again, a major strike involving as many as 1,000 metro Detroit nursing home workers appears to have been averted at the last minute, and is now expected to include just 60 or so employees at a single nursing home.
That’s because tentative agreements were reached with at least two nursing home chains over the weekend, ahead of the strike planned for Monday.
“Workers at Villa and Ciena facilities, who previously delivered notices of their intent to strike, reached temporary agreements with owners, winning contracts that increase pay, guarantee proper PPE, resolve staffing concerns and include strong benefits for frontline workers,” an SEIU Healthcare Michigan press release said Sunday. “The contract victories mean workers at these homes will no longer strike.”
It’s the second time a sizeable strike of Michigan nursing home staff has been called off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial plans to strike over wages, health care coverage, paid time off and personal protective equipment were paused in August, after one nursing home operator got a temporary restraining order to block the strike and Governor Gretchen Whitmer intervened.
On August 16, one day before the strike was set to start, Whitmer asked both sides to come back to the bargaining table for 30 days.
“Resolving this dispute is critical,” the governor said in a letter to SEIU Healthcare Michigan union leaders and nursing home operators. “...With COVID-19 cases in Michigan on the rise, we cannot allow our most vulnerable residents to lack vital care.”
More than 2,000 Michigan nursing home residents and 22 workers have died in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state data.
But in an October 9 press release announcing workers’ intention to strike, SEIU Healthcare representatives said they’d been unable to reach a deal with three major employers.
“After weeks of negotiations in which for-profit nursing home chains Ciena, Villa and [owner] Charles Dunn refused to reach fair solutions, workers are calling on owners to improve staffing levels to ensure quality care for residents, provide adequate PPE for the duration of the pandemic, pay frontline workers a living wage, and take responsibility for the crisis of COVID-19 within nursing homes.”
But by Sunday evening, the union said the strikes had been called off at all locations except for one: Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing in Westland. (The facility’s operator, Charles Dunn, did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“After weeks of negotiations in which for-profit nursing home chain Charles Dunn, which owns Four Seasons, refused to reach a fair solution, workers are calling on management to improve staffing levels to ensure quality care for residents, provide adequate PPE for the duration of the pandemic, pay frontline workers a living wage, and take responsibility for the crisis of COVID-19 within nursing homes,” the union’s statement said.
Carolyn Cole, a certified nursing assistant at Four Seasons, spoke with Michigan Radio. She says the strike is about demanding respect from employers.
“I really feel like they’re still taking COVID as a joke,” she says, especially when it comes to proper PPE and sufficient pay. “And not us as aides, or the staff in the facilities, I don’t feel like the owners come out and appreciate us enough. And it’s just so heartbreaking [for the residents]...We have to play the family members, we have to console the residents we take care of. We have to be their ear, and they’re like, ‘Can I see my loved one?’ They feel like they’ve been neglected. And it’s on us to reassure them.”
Nursing home operators are expected to find temporary staff to care for residents if the strike takes place, a union representative said Friday. The union also believes that because this is an unfair labor strike, workers have additional legal protection from retaliation.
One company, Ciena Healthcare, previously received a temporary restraining order against the strikers from the Oakland County Circuit Court. At the time, a company spokesperson said it was “to protect the residents of the facilities,” and accused union leadership of abruptly ending negotiations “after one or two bargaining sessions.”
(A spokesperson for SEIU Healthcare Michigan denies the allegations, saying unfair labor complaints were filed as far back as April.)
“Through diligence, perseverance, rigorous testing and infection control protocols, COVID-19 is not currently present in any of the Ciena-managed facilities receiving a strike notice; this is a tremendous achievement,” a spokesperon said in an emailed statement attributed to Ciena Healthcare management in August.
“SEIU’s decision to strike was irresponsible and risked undoing all of these efforts...In addition to leaving hundreds of residents with limited staff to care for their needs, engaging in a strike that would result in hundreds of nursing home staff assembled in large groups, would have increased the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, thereby endangering the health and safety of our most vulnerable population, our residents. Striking would put these vulnerable nursing home residents, who are already isolated from their families and other potential caregivers due to the pandemic, at even greater risk of physical harm.”
Nursing home workers and union members have pushed back on such criticisms, calling it hypocritical on the part of companies they say haven’t protected employees or residents with sufficient staffing levels and fair working conditions.