PROVIDENCE -- Caregivers at five nursing homes suspended their plan to strike next Wednesday after Governor Gina M. Raimondo intervened, promising to work with union leaders and legislators to resolve staffing issues and develop a minimum staffing standard.
Raimondo wrote to the workers’ union, Service Employees International, on Thursday after some state lawmakers and organizers announced their support for the strike over what the workers say are low wages and dangerous working conditions.
The union leadership announced Friday morning that workers were suspending the strike because of the governor’s promise.
The three-day strike, which was set to start Wednesday, would have seen workers walking off the job and picketing outside the Charlesgate Nursing Center and Bannister House, both in Providence; Genesis Pawtucket Nursing Center; Hopkins Manor in North Providence; and Genesis Greenville in Smithfield.
“I was disappointed the General Assembly did not pass legislation to establish minimum staffing levels in Rhode Island nursing homes, and I understand the resulting frustration of nursing home staff,” Raimondo said in a letter to Rhode Island executive vice president Patrick Quinn of SEIU Healthcare 1199NE. “However, this is a very difficult time for a strike in nursing homes, given the unique vulnerability of nursing home residents to the novel coronavirus.”
The union had been moving toward a strike because, leadership said, there had been no progress in more than a year in contract negotiations. The main proposals would increase staffing levels so that there are enough nurses and aides to provide at least 4.1 hours of direct care for residents per day, increase wages, and add training opportunities. The chronic issues of low pay and short staffing were exacerbated by the pandemic, workers say.
Their supporters, who joined a Zoom news conference Thursday, included Senator Maryellen Goodwin and Representative Scott Slater, Providence Democrats who were the sponsors of the Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act, which would establish the direct-care minimums.
“It’s so easy to call frontline workers heroes, and they are, but in Rhode Island, we need to set it in policy,” Goodwin said.
“The world is finally acknowledging that caregivers are heroes, and it’s sad that it takes a pandemic to bring it forward,” said Slater, whose mother, Josephine, lived at Capitol Ridge Assisted Living in Providence until her death in May. “Unless you really have a loved one in a nursing home, or you know the workers, you are blinded to the plight of what’s going on. I think it’s important that we treat our workers with respect and dignity.”
But their legislation didn’t survive the session. The Senate bill was passed earlier this month and referred to House Finance, which took no action and held the House version of the bill for further study.
Instead, the House passed a resolution by Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, a co-sponsor on the legislation, to create a special legislative commission to study and provide recommendations on the status and requirements for Rhode Island’s nursing homes.
State Representative Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat who also was a co-sponsor of the nursing home bill, said she was furious after meeting with House leadership on Wednesday.
The workers in this field are predominantly people of color, and they are also the ones being most affected by COVID-19, Williams pointed out.
“I have been saying since COVID-19 has come upon us that the community of color on every level have been strategically, purposely dismissed, even though in many of the areas they have been essential,” Williams said. “They are important, they are necessary, they are needed, but unfortunately they are being disrespected, disregarded in every way possible.”
The House didn’t do what it was supposed to do for the workers, Williams said. “I am overwhelmed, disgusted, pissed off, angry -- and that’s putting it respectfully -- at those individuals in power that did what they did when they did it,” she said.
The Rhode Island Health Care Association, a nonprofit trade association that represents 64 nursing homes, had opposed the proposed legislation.
Scott Fraser, the association’s president and CEO, said the cost of those mandated staffing levels would be exorbitant and force many nursing homes to close. He said Rhode Island is currently at 3.6 hours of direct care per resident, which is “not that far off” from what the union is seeking.
However, Fraser said, the nursing homes need to see an increase in Medicaid funding, which has been cut nearly every year. “We would love to pay all our staff at our homes [a higher wage] -- but we would need to see an increase in Medicaid,” he said.
However, the association does support the legislative commission, which will study all issues related to nursing homes, Fraser said. “Not just staffing, but reimbursements. For years, our members have been talking about our difficult financial situation.”
As for the strike next week, Fraser said the homes are prepared to replace the workers during the job action.
“I think the timing of this is just terrible,” he added. “I do not understand how pulling all of your employees out of a home is good for residents.”