PROVIDENCE — Nearly 100 health care workers and their supporters stood along Dodge Street throughout the day Friday, outside Bannister Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, waiving bright yellow flags with their union’s logo, protesting against their employer’s unsafe staffing levels and “poverty-level wages.”
Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England, a union that represents 29,000 health care and service workers in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Southeastern Massachusetts, said the executives who run Bannister have “put them and their patients in danger” throughout the pandemic while paying them “less than average.”
Certified nursing assistants at Bannister told the Globe that they earn a starting wage of $12.70 per hour, which they said is “significantly less” than other, nearby nursing facilities.
Shirley Lomba has been a certified medication technician at Bannister for 18 years. She said she attended a three-day picket last year until the union and Bannister’s leadership came to an agreement for a new contract. But, Lomba said, the employer isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
“The staffing levels are horrible. They are paying for agency staffing, taking care of them, paying them more and we aren’t even getting a bump,” she said. “Everything down to the kitchen is short staffed and the pay is so low and they can’t even get new workers. All these ‘now hiring’ signs out front have been there. No one wants to work here.”
The union said that instead of compensating workers, Bannister is hiring out-of-state agency staff and paying them “nearly double” the wages of the center’s permanent staff. And despite having contract language entitling workers to “short staffing pay,” Bannister allegedly refuses to meet with the union caregivers to negotiate terms and has failed to communicate what percentage of recent Medicaid reimbursement rate increases will go directly to worker compensation, according to SEIU spokeswoman Amelia Abromaitis.
Jeffrey Jacomowitz, a spokesman for Bannister’s parent company, Bronx, N.Y.-based Centers Health Care, told the Globe that employees have received bonuses throughout the pandemic. He said Bannister and CHC leadership will “continue to work with the union to resolve all labor and meet as issues arise.”
Jacomowitz said that Bannister met with union representatives on Oct. 7 on Zoom, the day before the pre-planned picket. He said that the CHC also forwarded Medicaid reimbursement data to the union.
He said CHC leadership has had “countless meetings” with the union about staffing. Though the CHC and union “haven’t agreed on a ratio doesn’t mean we haven’t met and had those discussions,” he said.
“The contract further provides that the Union may file for arbitration by Jan. 1, 2022 if the parties can’t agree on a formula,” said Jacomowitz.
Employees at Bannister held a picket last October over the same issues.
”We shouldn’t have to be here again. The people out here are mostly women, women who aren’t from America, and they are taking care of your parents and grandparents. We are just asking for appreciation,” said a certified nursing assistant who has worked at Bannister for six years. She’s from Ghana and did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.
General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who is running for governor, spoke to cheering health care workers outside of Bannister. He later told the Globe that care workers in general are “not paid enough.”
This is why “it’s important to move to a $15 minimum wage and keep an eye on inflation and the cost of living,” said Magaziner. “The state should be using stimulus money to make it easier to recruit and retain staff — whether it’s through retention bonuses for those who are still there or sign-on bonuses for new people... Other states have been using some of their stimulus funds to help address health care staffing issues. It’s something we ought to consider as well.”
Bannister, a 161 bed facility, has stacked up a significant amount of fines throughout the pandemic for reported deficiencies by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare.
In March, inspectors reported 11 deficiencies related to “compromising a patient’s dignity,” failure to properly store and serve food under sanitary conditions, follow-up care neglect, and 61 medication administration errors.
According to CMS records, one patient was supposed to be seen by a dental consultant in August 2019. They were not given access to the patient until February 2020, at which point the patient was told that they would need three teeth extracted. The patient received a referral to see an oral surgeon. But records at Bannister showed that the patient was told by a manager that they could not bring them to the oral surgeon due to COVID-19. When the patient was seen by a dentist again, in February 2021, they were told that 11 teeth needed to be extracted. In the meantime, the patient said they were in so much pain that they pulled out two of their own teeth themselves in December 2020, according to inspectors.
The facility was fined $61,620 for the 11 incidents.
In October 2020, Bannister was fined $197,808 for three reports for failure to follow physician’s orders, failure to prevent and contain the potential spread and transmission of COVID-19, and failure to have proper personal protective equipment.
In all, Bannister has been fined $421,544 for 46 total deficiencies, with four incidents marked “serious.”
Many of the frontline workers protesting on Friday credit the issues to unsafe staffing levels, where one certified nursing assistant is reportedly caring for eight to 12 patients at a time.
“I still work here because I love Bannister. I love the patients and my coworkers. We all do. We’re just asking for some appreciation,” said Lomba. “They say we are heroes, but I don’t see ‘hero’ in my paycheck.”