West

Lexington

Wage, benefit cuts spur strike vote

Pay ‘way out of line,’ new owner says

Unionized employees at a Lexington nursing home have voted to authorize a strike after they received a memo from the facility’s new owner announcing cuts in wages and health insurance benefits.

Lexington Care & Rehab LLC formally took over the former Golden LivingCenter on May 1 and renamed it the Lexington Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation. The new owner is affiliated with New York-based Zenith Care Health Group, according to the state Department of Public Health.

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Last month, Lexington Care announced to the staff that as of May 1 it intended to cut wages by up to 40 percent for some employees, as well as reduce the company’s share of employee medical insurance premiums.

Unionized employees voted May 7 to authorize a strike, which could happen as early as next month.

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The new owners say the cuts are necessary to make the nursing home profitable again.

“This facility has been losing substantial amounts of money for some time,” said Ari Schwartz, a principal with the company. “These wages at this nursing home are way out of line for other wages in the county.

“We need to make sure the facility remains robustly staffed and provides the residents with high-quality care, regardless of the union negotiations,” said Schwartz. “We care very much about the residents and their families, and we want to make sure they’re taken care of.”

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Employees and their supporters say the cuts are unfair, and will lead to a decline in the quality of care.

The nursing facility employs 94 members of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers East. The strike authorization proposal was approved by a unanimous vote, 76 to 0, according to union spokesman Jeff Hall.

Hall said the employees were last paid on April 30, and their next payday is Friday.

State Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, a Democrat from Arlington whose district includes the nursing home’s location, issued a statement supporting the employees, and told the Globe that the cuts would affect the facility’s residents as well its staff members.

“How good a job are they going to do if they’ve just been completely devastated in their wages?” Donnelly said. “They may walk out. They may not come to work. Who takes care of the residents?”

The company’s memo last month also stated that the new owner would not honor any collective bargaining agreements made with the Golden LivingCenter company, and would not honor any agreements to arbitrate disputes.

Hall said that Schwartz met with the 18-person bargaining committee on Wednesday, and told the group that the company would not change the wage proposals outlined in the initial memo. The committee and Schwartz are scheduled to meet on Monday, Hall said.

‘How good a job are they going to do if they’ve just been completely devastated in their wages?’

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A group of employees gathered at the Lexington House of Pizza told the Globe that they felt disrespected and undervalued. They said they could seek jobs elsewhere, but after years of providing care they feel a sense of loyalty and familial obligation to the residents.

Gertha Mesidor, a certified nursing assistant who has worked there for 14 years, said Zenith “tried to bully us.”

“It’s like my family, my home. I’ve been there since I was a teenager,” she said. Mesidor, who has five children to support and a mortgage, said she had been making $18.80 per hour, but will now make $11.50 per hour.

“I was shocked when I got the news. I couldn’t sleep for two days,” said Lourcie Sylvestre, a nurse who has worked at the facility for 12 years and just found out that her wages will drop from $33 per hour to $20.

State law stipulates that workers must wait 30 days to announce a strike after new owners take control of a business, then must wait 10 days to start the strike. So the earliest a strike could happen would be next month.

According to the company’s memo, made available to the Globe by employees, under the new policy, registered nurses would make $24 per hour, licensed practical nurses would make $20 per hour, and certified nursing assistants would make $11.50 per hour. The memo also states that Zenith will pay 50 percent of monthly premiums for medical and dental plans, down from 75 percent under the previous management.

Although the Massachusetts Department of Public Health licenses, regulates, and inspects nursing home facilities, it does not require public hearings or notices for the issuance of a license or transfer of ownership.

A bill before the state Legislature seeks to require a formal public hearing process before any change in ownership or licensing, providing community members an opportunity to weigh in.

“There is no system now,” said state Senator Harriette L. Chandler, a Worcester Democrat and the Senate’s assistant majority leader, who filed the bill. “You can buy, you can sell, you can change, you can close . . . you can do anything you want. There’s no process.”

Chandler said she is very concerned about the situation in Lexington, and she is hoping to push the bill through as quickly as possible.

“This is exactly why I filed the bill. It basically standardizes the regulation of facilities,” said Chandler. “You can’t transfer licenses, you can’t shut nursing homes down. You can’t do it in the dead of night without the community having some say.”

The employees who gathered at the local pizza shop said they were concerned about the residents, and don’t want to leave their jobs.

Marie Legros, a nurse who has worked at the facility for two decades, said she recently took time off to care for her mother. When she returned to work, one of her Alzheimer’s patients who doesn’t often speak told Legros she’d been waiting for her to come back.

Legros said, “How can I walk away from that?”

Certified nursing assistant Lermond Metellus, who has worked at the facility for 25 years, observed: “We’re like a family. They know us. They don’t want us to leave.”

Emily Cataneo can be reached at emilycataneo@gmail.com.
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