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Adrian Walker

Lexington nursing home workers at unsettling impasse

Gertha Mesidor didn’t intend to spend Monday on strike, though she probably will.

The nursing home she has worked in tirelessly for 20 years was sold earlier this year, and the new owners have returned her devotion by immediately slashing pay and benefits.

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The home, long known as Golden Living Lexington, was sold a few weeks ago to Zenith Care Health Group, a little-known New York-based company, and renamed the Lexington Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation. The new owner quickly instituted pay cuts ranging from 40 to 60 percent. Mesidor, a nurse’s assistant, said her pay dropped from $18.80 an hour to $11.50 — not much for a mother raising five children. Monday the workers plan a one-day walkout.

“They know what they did to us was wrong,” Mesidor said.

The cuts came as a shock to the longtime employees, but what most bothers them, they say, is the callous indifference they say has been shown to the residents of the 152-bed facility. “They’re like family to us,” Mesidor said. “They are used to us. If all of us leave, it’s like we abandoned them.”

Zenith’s chief executive, Ari Schwartz, said in a telephone interview that the cuts were forced because the nursing home has been losing $2 million a year. He also claimed that the workers were overpaid. Seriously?

“The main issue is that the salaries there are substantially higher than in the city and the state,” he said. “We’re trying to bring them in line with the region.” Yes, those 60 percent salary cuts are all about fairness to nursing home workers everywhere.

The sides engaged in talks over the weekend, though an official for SEIU Local 1199, which represents the workers, said the sides were too far apart for a settlement to be likely soon. Some workers speculate that the company would welcome the chance to bring in a lower-paid workforce if the current employees walk out, though Schwartz insisted that Zenith’s long-term goal is stability.

Nearly forgotten in the talk of cost containment and red ink are the patients. Most of them are elderly, and many of them form close ties with caretakers, connections that are currently in peril. Just ask Paul Klaver, a Lexington resident with a family member who lives in the home’s dementia ward.

“They are probably the most dedicated people I know,” Klaver said. “I’m just so sad to see them treated like this. I know that money is important to [the employees] but they are there for the right reasons, to care for people. I wish the new owners could say that.”

Since the Draconian cuts were imposed, a handful of employees have quit. Others, including nurses and nurse’s assistants, say they have remained out of loyalty to the patients. Many of them could easily find jobs that pay better than the new near minimum-wage salaries they are now receiving.

“Mistakes by less qualified or unqualified caregivers can be a matter of life and death for seniors,” said Jeff Hall, a spokesman for SEIU Local 1199. “The cuts have been so obscene and extreme that the caregivers planning to strike could go find higher-paying work in many other places.”

Questions abound about Zenith, which has no previous ties to Massachusetts, and a thin track record in nursing home management. In response to a spate of bad press about their wage cuts, the company practically went underground this spring, taking down its website.

Its officials have said little about their plans in Lexington. Schwartz issued the standard platitudes about being invested for the long haul, but the company’s actions thus far have brought anything but stability.

The company may have accomplished one thing, though. It may have united the nursing home residents’ families and the employees against the new management. Workers insist that walking away is a last resort. “We could leave, but we choose to stay here,” with the home’s residents, Mesidor said. “We can’t just leave. We are their voice.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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