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Nursing home workers delay strike, after Whitmer makes last-minute plea

SEIU Healthcare Michigan

More than a thousand nursing home workers from more than a dozen facilities in the Detroit area will not go on strike today as planned, their union announced suddenly this morning, after Governor Gretchen Whitmer asked nursing home operators and union leaders to engage in “good faith” negotiations over the next 30 days. 


Workers claim they are making “poverty wages” while putting themselves in danger during the COVID-19 pandemic, without proper protective equipment or sufficient staffing levels. The CEO of one company that operates multiple facilities says a strike would be “reckless,” given the risks posed by COVID-19, and that negotiations are still in the early stages.   


A last-minute plea from the governor


In an email sent to several operators and the union on Sunday, Whitmer said the labor dispute threatens the progress the state has made in protecting nursing home residents and staff, and “could have a devastating impact on many people.”


“Resolving this dispute is critical. Workers must receive a fair wage for the important work they do, and nursing home operators must have a sustainable path forward. For this reason, I strongly encourage all parties to commit to good faith negotiations for at least the next 30 days to find an agreeable solution without taking further economic action such as a strike or lockout. With COVID-19 cases in Michigan on the rise, we cannot allow our most vulnerable residents to lack vital care. Thank you for understanding the importance of this matter as you work toward an equitable solution.”


A restraining order against nurses, employees set to strike


According to data provided by facilities to the state, more than 4,000 nursing home staffers are confirmed as having contracted COVID-19. Twenty-one of them have died. More than 8,000 residents have also been reported as confirmed cases, and 2,082 have died. 


On Friday, Ciena Healthcare Management, Inc. was granted a temporary restraining order against employees at eight of the company’s facilities, ordering them to “immediately cease, desist, and refrain from picketing in a manner that interferes with ingress or egress to the subject facilities” for seven days. 


“Instead of using their millions to pay us and protect us, the owners of Ciena homes paid for lawyers to try to stop workers from using our voices,” Mo’Nae Rawls, a front desk receptionist at Omni Continuing Care, said in a press release from SEIU Healthcare. “...We delivered strike notices because it was our best tool to fight for our residents and our families. But we’re not sitting down; we’ll be back.”


CEO calls the strike “reckless” 


In a letter provided to Michigan Radio that appears to be from Mohammad Qazi, President and CEO of Ciena Healthcare, to employees on August 12, Qazi urged workers not to strike, claiming negotiations are still in the early stages. “The parties have yet to even fully discuss economic issues such as future wages or benefits!” the letter reads.  


“Pushing to strike now, during an ongoing pandemic and state-declared state of emergency, is nothing short of reckless,” the letter says. “I implore the Union and its members to seriously reconsider withdrawing the strike notices and get back to bargaining, as the safety of residents takes priorities over all other matters and interests.” 


A spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the letter provided to Michigan Radio was sent by Qazi as claimed, but did send a written statement. It reads, in part:

"In addition to leaving hundreds of residents with limited staff to care for their needs, engaging in a strike that would result in hundreds of nursing home staff assembled in large groups, would have increased the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, thereby endangering the health and safety of our most vulnerable population, our residents... "...We are confident agreements can be reached that address the issues raised by SEIU and the needs of management so that the focus of all will continue to be caring for our residents. "


“They straight up ignored us”


But Kevin Lignell, a spokesperson for SEIU Healthcare, says the union has been attempting to negotiate for months, and first filed unfair labor charges back in April.


“We approached all the nursing homes multiple times when the pandemic hit, for basic protections, for ‘hero’ pay for all, for all these things. We were ignored every single time,” Lignell says. “And then, without approaching us, they went basically to the workers and just started executing whatever policies they wanted. And that’s when we filed two unfair labor charges back in April. So they were basically just straight up ignoring us. And to come back now, months later, and say we haven’t tried to negotiate with them enough and say it’s not a legitimate strike, is ridiculous.” 


Qazi also tells employees in his August 12 letter that Ciena Healthcare has provided workers with additional “hero” and “superhero” pay during the COVID-19 pandemic, and made all possible efforts to secure sufficient protective equipment during the pandemic. 


But Trece Andrews, a laundry worker at Regency at St. Clair Shores that’s operated by Ciena Healthcare, says the company “only gave [hero pay] to certain people.” If you came in late one day or missed a day of work, you didn’t receive it, she says. That’s what Andrews says happened to her, when she took her father to a medical appointment.  


“And some of the ladies that worked on the COVID unit during the time...they’ve been telling me they didn’t even get the $8 more they were supposed to get for working over there. If you got it, you was lucky...because most of us didn’t get it.”


Andrews also rejects Qazi’s description of the strike as “reckless.”


“It’s reckless the way they’ve been treating their workers through the COVID,” Andrews says. “For one, we didn’t have the proper PPE for two to three months. And the PPE that they did have, they hid it, and we had to call our union to get them to open the office so we could have it. If you ask me, that’s reckless. Number two, it’s reckless not to think everybody in that home matters, whether you’re a CNA, you’re laundry, you’re a housekeeper, you’re dietary, you’re activities. We’re all essential in that home. We’re all working around the residents and other employees.” 


In late July, SEIU Healthcare Michigan announced it had reached a deal with Lakepointe Senior Care and Rehab to give an average 11% wage increase to housekeeping and laundry workers, higher starting pay of $15-$18/hour for certified nursing assistants, as well as “tuition reimbursement, paid time off for part-time workers, additional paid sick time for COVID-19 related absences.”


“The contract will serve as a model for thousands of workers with expired contracts at over 20 nursing homes in Detroit,” the union said in a statement on July 31. 


Meanwhile, even with the strike postponed, Andrews says she’s hopeful that a deal can be reached in the next 30 days. 


“Because we were so strong and ready to go on strike that I really, really, truly believe that right now, we really get them in a corner,” she says. “...So I'm hopeful because of that, that they will come to some type of agreement that we all would be happy with.”


This story was updated on August 24 at 4:30 pm. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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