Nursing home workers authorize strikes statewide; extra funding on Harrisburg priority list

By: - June 21, 2021 6:51 pm

Employees at 12 Pennsylvania nursing homes voted to authorize strikes this week, citing low pay and short staffing, as closed-door negotiations wear on in Harrisburg on how to spend $7.3 billion in federal COVID-19 aid.

The more than 1,000 nurses and caregivers, from Lancaster and Wilkes-Barre to Oil City, are taking the strike votes after contract negotiations between their union, Service Employees International Union HealthCare PA, and the private nursing home owners dragged on for months.

Among the sticking points in one home — Saunders House outside Philadelphia — are less access to on-the-job training and education, low wages, and rising healthcare costs, said Tisheia Frazier, a 41-year-old certified nursing assistant.

“The irony of being a healthcare worker is you can’t get health care,” Frazier told the Capital-Star on Monday.

The strike vote does not mean the workers are on strike, just that they have approved a work stoppage if necessary. And it comes as Harrisburg lawmakers sit on billions of dollars of federal aid that could alleviate workers’ concerns, union president Matt Yarnell told the Capital-Star. 

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Add in a pandemic that killed thousands of nursing home residents, nurses, their aides, and other nursing home employees were in desperate need of financial assistance, he said.

While the employees authorizing a strike work in privately owned care facilities, these facilities are home to residents whose care is paid for with state and federal dollars, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

As such, additional funding could make a big difference in the lives of the employees, Yarnell told the Capital-Star

“We got up to work every single day, brought COVID back to our families,” Yarnell said. “We’ve had the backs of our communities all the way through it, and we’re asking for a down payment on a drive to equality.”

Yarnell and SEIU HealthCare are asking lawmakers to earmark $250 million of the federal stimulus money for bedside employees. 

If that’s directed into their paychecks, Yarnell argued, such an investment could increase nurses’ starting wages to $25 an hour, nursing aides to $17 an hour, and all other supporting staffs’ wages to $15 an hour.

A new state budget is widely expected to be finished by the end of the week. But negotiations are fluid. Capitol insiders have been hesitant to definitively lay out what is in or out of the spending plan.

Multiple interest groups have lobbied for their pet priorities, from business advocates requesting more funding in the state unemployment trust fund to a push to clean up toxins from schools.

However, extra funding for nursing homes is “definitely on our agenda,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said Monday. 

He added he met with Yarnell, and had discussed funding plans with the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, but declined to reveal any further details.

In a statement, LeadingAge PA, an industry group representing nursing homes, personal care homes, and assisted living facilities, said it was asking for almost $450 million in total state aid for such facilities.

Such an investment is needed to cover nursing homes unexpected costs from managing the last year of the pandemic, noted the group’s Senior Vice President & Chief Government Affairs Officer Anne Henry.

As for staff wages, the association pointed a finger at low reimbursements care rates, which are set by the General Assembly. 

The Republican-controlled General Assembly has cited Pennsylvania’s aging population and rising human services costs as a top fiscal concern, but little has been done to address the problem over the past decade.

“Without a meaningful commitment by the commonwealth to adequately fund medical assistance nursing facility services, providers have limited ability to increase wages,” Henry said. 

The federal funding, she added, is a chance to reverse a trend of closures and sales that “threaten access to quality providers for our loved ones across Pennsylvania.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.