April 6, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
Union City NJ - “¿Huelga, verdad?” 1199SEIU organizer Leilani Montes asked the crowd of about 20 women outside the ManhattanView Nursing Home April 4. “Un dia sin pago.”
“You’re committing yourself to strike,” she says, switching to English, as the group, wearing winter coats over red, green, pink, and blue scrubs, pauses from picketing. “You’re willing to sacrifice one day, because the owner’s been pocketing your raises for three years.”
The picket at the 127-bed facility was part of three days of action at New Jersey nursing homes operated by Michael Konig’s Broadway Healthcare Management. All of the about 40 workers who picketed ManhattanView, a five-story concrete building perched on the Union City ridge just above where the highway from the Lincoln Tunnel goes partially underground, signed papers authorizing 1199SEIU to call a one-day strike.
Their contract expired three years ago. They say Konig is refusing to negotiate with them. “All he does is send his lawyer,” says Carmen Mattura, a housekeeper and member of the union’s negotiating committee. “Every time, it’s the same thing. ‘I’ll discuss it with him.’”
More staffing is their most important demand, she says, along with better wages, health benefits, and “showing appreciation of the employees here, please.”
All three of the Broadway Healthcare nursing homes being picketed—ManhattanView, Amboy Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Perth Amboy, and Teaneck Nursing Center in Teaneck—rank below the state’s average staff-to-patient ratio, according to New Jersey Department of Health data for 2016. The ratio for certified nursing assistants, the workers who feed, wash, and talk to the patients, ranks in the bottom 11% on the overnight shift, 1199SEIU says.
“The quality of care for the residents is being put in jeopardy because we’re overworked and understaffed,” says Yesenia LaFleche, 45, a licensed practical nurse who’s worked at ManhattanView for 11 years. “We’ve seen the decline.” She’s the only nurse on her 43-patient unit, and there are only two certified nursing assistants on the floor at night, working with patients who have dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and are at high risk for falls.
“We can’t be short. We want to have enough people to cover when someone falls down,” says Hilda Ynfante, 57, a certified nursing attendant on the 3-to-11 evening shift. “You go room by room, feeding the ones who cannot eat by themselves.” Normally, she’s responsible for 11 patients, but “when we’re short, we have to go to 15.”
Mattura has to clean 23 rooms on her shift, including the bathroom in each one. “By the time I get home, I’m dead on my feet,” she says.
For that, she makes $10.16 an hour after 15 years on the job. The union is seeking “a path to $15”; she says she’d be surprised to see $11. One-bedroom apartments in Union City, an overwhelmingly Latino city of about 70,000 people that’s the most densely populated city in the nation, start at around $1,500 a month, she notes.
“We don’t have a raise for years,” says Claudia Demoya, 40, a Honduran immigrant who’s been a dietary aide for 10 years. “We cannot live on 9 dollars 54.”
Hilda Ynfante makes $12.36 after 14 years at ManhattanView. That’s 36 cents more than the starting wage for a new certified nursing attendant. “That’s what I think is not fair,” she says. “I’m not saying to pay them less money, but at least they can raise us for the time we’ve been here.”
Last fall, a federal court ordered Broadway Healthcare Management to pay $636,000 in back wages to 150 workers at 10 nursing homes it placed staff at in New Jersey, including ManhattanView. A Department of Labor investigation in 2008 had found that it had cheated workers out of overtime pay by giving them checks from two different payroll companies when they worked more than 40 hours in a week, and sometimes didn’t pay them at all for the extra hours. According to the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, the company was found in contempt for refusing to stop that scam.
“I have never been convicted of a crime,” Michael Konig told the Hudson Reporter, a local weekly investigating the privatization of two county-run nursing homes, in 2003. "But I do admit that I've had problems at one home in Massachusetts.” He had been banned from owning or operating nursing homes in that state for 10 years after allegations that he’d pocketed more than $600,000 in Medicare payments, stiffed suppliers for more than $500,000, failed to pay more than $150,000 in federal fines, and abused and neglected patients.
The union didn’t get its last contract at ManhattanView until the day of the strike deadline it set, 1199 vice-president Roy Garcia tells the morning-shift workers when they come out for their turn on the picket line. The for-profit company can afford to give a raise, says 1199 spokesperson Bryn Lloyd-Bollard: It’s cleared $6.5 million in profits in the last five years.
LaFleche says she’s “excited” about a possible strike. “It’s been three years. It’s long overdue.” But, she adds, “the most important thing is the patients. That’s our number-one thing.”
“We pour our hearts out for them,” says Mattura.