WELLSVILLE, N.Y.—After spending more than two years trying to win their first union contract, workers at the Highland Park Nursing Home in Wellsville staged a two-day strike Sept. 17-19, protesting unfair labor practices by the home’s owner.
“We’ve been in negotiations for almost 26 months,” says Cindy Costello, a veteran licensed practical nurse who has worked at the facility for eight years. “We’ve given up everything except a wage increase and a shift differential. They don’t want to give us nothing.”
The 80-bed facility in Wellsville, a town of about 7,000 people 85 miles southeast of Buffalo, is operated by the Brooklyn-based Excelsior Care Group, which runs 12 nursing homes in the New York City area, New Jersey, and upstate New York. Staff there voted to join 1199SEIU in the summer of 2018. The unit represents 55 certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, and housekeeping and laundry workers.
“We felt we were being mistreated,” certified nursing assistant Maggie Phillips said in a statement released by 1199SEIU. “For 25 months we have met and bargained with our corporate employer all the while dealing with threats, intimidation, and our coworkers getting suspended. With all that is going on, refusing good health care to nursing workers is absolutely inhumane!”
The union filed unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board on Aug. 28, Sept. 10, and Sept. 15. It alleges “coercive statements” such as threats and promises of benefits and unfair discipline against union supporters. A charge of bad-faith bargaining filed in May was withdrawn, according to NLRB records.
“Management is very intimidating,” says Allison Krause of 1199SEIU. They have suspended union supporters without cause, she adds.
“They’re calling the girls really bad names. I don’t want to repeat them,” says Costello. She doesn’t know who’s sending the threatening texts, but whoever it is has access to all employees’ phone numbers. Management, she adds, has also told workers “if you strike, you’re going to be fired” and pulled individuals away from their jobs for interrogations about their attitudes about the union.
The threats were enough to make some workers go in instead of striking, says Krause. Highland Park management said that only 18 employees had walked out Sept. 17.
“This strike is without the least bit of merit,” Blake Apsokardu, the facility’s administrator, said in a statement. “It is an irresponsible action that can potentially put the wellbeing of all who are in the care of our employees in grave jeopardy.”
The union has been seeking better staffing, adequate health insurance, and pay increases. Some workers make the regional minimum wage of $11.80 an hour.
Apsokardu claimed that management has increased pay twice in the past nine months, with CNA rates rising by 14.4% to 29.7%, LPN rates by 10.2% to 27.3%, and other union positions by about 9.5%. He charges that the union rejected the raises it offered, while “demanding that the employees reduce their pay by 2% and give it to the union.”
Those claimed increases, says Krause, include the 6.3% raise the lowest-paid workers got last Dec. 31—when the minimum wage went up by 70 cents an hour.
“Management is looking for zero percent,” she continues. “They don’t really want an agreement.”
“We are the lowest-paid around,” says Costello. Paying better wages, she adds, would help Highland Park retain staff, which would be good because “we know the residents. We spend more time with them than we do with our own families.”
But instead of agreeing to a raise, she says, management has hired temporary workers from New York City as strikebreakers, and “these agencies are getting paid three times what we are.”