Short on staff and supplies in a pandemic, Erie nursing home employees say they’re not getting the help they need

(Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

(*This story has been updated to correctly reflect the participants in a meeting between SEIU organizers and nursing home employees. Sequal Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based progressive communications firm, did not participate in the meeting. An earlier version of the story indicated that they did.)

ERIE, Pa. — Employees at Twinbrook, an Erie senior care facility, say they’re short on staff and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and have accused management of being indifferent to their needs.

The employees  brought their concerns to the attention of state Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, who told the Capital-Star: “When people do understand what’s involved … I think there’s going to be a lot of community outrage.”

Harkins told the Capital-Star that he was “surprised to learn through a couple of phone calls that employees weren’t being treated as well as they thought they should be.” 

Harkins said he’s asked Twinbrook employees to submit formal complaints so he can “do my darndest to help them in any way that I could.” 

The dispute over staffing and supplies also comes amid the employees’ ongoing effort to unionize.

*On Feb. 23, internal union representatives of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania firm, met with Twinbrook employees to “move serious unionizing plans,” Nati Zavala, a union representative, told the Capital-Star. 

One of the two nurses who originally contacted SEIU Healthcare PA for assistance unionizing the staff, and who has asked for anonymity because of fears of professional repercussions, told the Capital-Star that, “the negligence (at Twinbrook) is astounding because we don’t have enough staff. Like last night, we were short a nurse. And so all of us run around just trying to … get everything done.”

Attempts to unionize were a last-ditch effort to maintain staffing, the nurse told the Capital-Star. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Twinbrook union vote has been postponed. And Twinbrook’s employees and management have not been able to find a compromise on how to move forward. 

Thomas Foster, an administrator of Twinbrook’s parent company Guardian Elder Care who works at the Erie nursing home, referred the Capital-Star to Mike Carole, Guardian Elder Care’s corporate lawyer and Jeremy Church, the parent company’s human resources representative. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Insufficient staffing at Twinbrook means residents are not receiving treatments, wounds are not being cared for, and baths are not being given at appropriate times, the nurse said. 

Twinbrook, a for-profit healthcare and rehabilitation center, is owned by Guardian Elder Care, based Brockway, Pa., and operates with 120 resident beds. The company operates 52 facilities in Pennsylvania, five in Ohio, and two in West Virginia.

On Feb. 19, the U.S. Justice Department ordered Twinbrook’s parent company to pay more than $15 million to “settle claims that the skilled nursing home chain provided medically unnecessary rehabilitation therapy to residents in order to meet revenue goals, instead of clinical needs.”

Just a month earlier, in an extensive report, the state Department of Health said Twinbrook failed to comply with the agency’s Emergency Preparedness requirements in more than one category.

In the Jan. 29, 2020 report, the Health Department said Twinbrook “lacked documentation to verify the efforts to cooperate and collaborate with local, tribal, regional, state and federal emergency preparedness officials’ efforts to maintain an integrated response during a disaster or emergency situation.” 

The Health Department’s review also found that Twinbrook lacked documentation to provide subsistence needs for staff and patients — including pharmaceuticals, waste disposal, alternate power, maintaining building temperatures, emergency lighting, and fire detection, extinguishing and alarm systems — during emergency situations.  

Twinbrook also “lacked documentation that an annual training and testing on the Emergency Preparedness Plan was conducted for all staff,” as well as documentation that training and testing on the plan was conducted with new hires and volunteers, the agency said in its report.

‘Sometimes we need to give residents baths with sheets’

The nurse told the Capital-Star that Twinbrook employees regularly run out of supplies — everything from medicine to washcloths. “Sometimes we need to give residents baths with sheets,” the nurse said. 

With 17 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Erie County, and the county under a stay-at-home order, employees are concerned for the safety of their residents as local officials expect the number of positive COVID-19 cases to rise. 

“I doubt we will have anywhere near enough supplies to help these people,” the same nurse, who has been practicing for over a decade, said. She has been at Twinbrook for almost four  years. 

Nurses claim not to have received a clear response when they have brought these concerns to management. 

If the community’s residents are exposed to COVID-19, many will get pneumonia, but with the lack of supplies and preparedness, “we’re going to have to watch them suffocate,” the nurse said. 

Management is exacerbating the problem, Twinbrook employees claim, going so far as to take away sanitizers, toilet paper and Tylenol and locking them in the Director of Nursing’s office, charging that employees are stealing the supplies, said a nurse. 

When Foster, the Guardian Elder Care administrator working at Twinbrook was questioned by the Capital-Star about these claims, he had no comment and ended the interview. 

When asked what Twinbrook is doing to protect employees and residents from the virus, the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) said: “Well, they shut down visitors, you know, the outside visitors from coming, but they do let the union busters and people like that come in. A family can’t get in unless, you know, somebody looks like they’re going to die.”

According to the nurse, residents are aware of the many problems at Twinbrook, though unable to come forward themselves. 

In a briefing with journalists earlier this week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the state is doing everything it can to make sure that personal care homes and other facilities have the supplies that they need.

“We are certainly very concerned about cases in personal care homes, assisted living facilities,” said Levine, who was not specifically asked about the situation at Twinbrook. “Our department is investigating very closely any outbreaks or deaths and taking all measures to protect patients and staff in those facilities.”

Broken phones, no communication

The phones in the facility often do not work. Since the residents are on lock down, no family visits are allowed except in critical situations. And unless a resident has a cell phone — many don’t — they have no way to contact anyone, including family, the nurse told the Capital-Star. 

After multiple attempts to reach Twinbrook administrators, the Capital-Star finally contacted a receptionist who said the phones are “working sporadically today. I go to pick it up and it cuts out.”

A CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) said the senior care facility was supposed to get new phone lines, but that had not happened to date. 

Twinbrook staff said they are at a loss as to what to do now that union efforts have been put on hold and nurses’ complaints to Guardian Elder Care are allegedly left unanswered.

In a Mar. 15 statement, SEIU Healthcare PA cited a “CNA at Twinbrook who’s been there many years who does not want to be named for fear of retribution,” who said that employees had been “struggling with staffing for so long, it sometimes feels like management is literally running us into the ground.”

Harkins, who said he learned about the situation at Twinbrook after “three or four” employees approached him. In an interview with the Capital-Star, he wondered if the change in management was to blame. 

One CNA who has been at Twinbrook for years told the Capital-Star, “We’ve gone through so many administrators it’s ridiculous.”

Regardless of the cause of these problems, Harkins told the Capital-Star, “something eventually has to give on this … ultimately people’s lives are at stake.” 

“And as far as forming a union, sure. They should be allowed to form a union. And God forbid these owners if they get in the way of them trying to form a collective bargaining,” Harkins told the Capital-Star.

“I’ve dealt with whistleblowers on many, many fronts,” Harkins continued. “But I’ve always handled complaints or concerns or questions from people confidentially. I’ve never gone outside of that trust that I would have with somebody and I would do my darndest to help them in any way that I could. And what would happen with the facility — you know there are  state and federal regulations that they have to adhere to. And they can’t just willy nilly abruptly turn or do something with that they’ve got people’s lives at stake and they’ve got to understand and respect that.”