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In Detroit, nursing home workers highlight "ongoing care crisis"

Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio

As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare to debate in Detroit over the next two days, hundreds of nursing home care workers have gathered in the city to highlight what they call in an “ongoing care crisis” in that industry.

The Service Employees International Union kicked off that effort Tuesday, with an event that brought nursing home workers from across the Midwest to Detroit. It also drew several Democratic state lawmakers and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who vowed to fight for workers they say are undervalued and underpaid.

Nursing home workers shared stories about how routine understaffing takes a toll on them, jeopardizing their ability to properly care for elderly residents.

Cheryl Wideman works as a certified nursing assistant at Detroit’s Fairlane Senior Care and Rehab Center. She says the facility is nearly always understaffed, except when state inspectors pay a visit. “Only when the state is coming in do they staff properly. We all know it,” she said.

Wideman says she often struggles to give residents water more than once per shift, or change them more than once every eight hours.

“It’s really hard on our bodies, and a lot of times we don’t take breaks because we won’t finish on time,” Wideman said. “And it’s even harder for the residents. You can’t just go in and pull them up like they are animals. They are human beings.

“If you have a heart for them, sometimes you are going to be in tears. It’s hard to explain unless you are doing the job. You want to do it, but you just can’t.”

Andrea Acevedo is president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, the largest nursing home workers union in the state. She says part of the problem is that Michigan’s required staffing ratios mandate just two hours of direct patient care per day. The union maintains that at least four hours of direct patient care should be a basic minimum standard for nursing homes.

“I mean, Florida has better staffing ratios than Michigan. We have one of the lowest in the country, and it’s really unacceptable,” Acevedo said. “It’s time for a change and we’re standing for that.”

Acevedo says the SEIU is calling on the state to investigate these conditions, better enforce existing staffing regulations and holding nursing home owners responsible for violations. She says the union will work with Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force to continue investigative work, and also push for better worker pay.

Nessel told workers that she’s been on a statewide listening tour with the Task Force this summer. She says that the “vast majority of nursing home workers are absolutely overworked and absolutely underpaid.”

“Mandatory overtime, double shifts, increasing workloads, all without an increase in pay, and that’s left our state’s nursing home industry in despair,” Nessel said, noting that she’s found the most prevalent issue to be “the patient to caregiver ratio in nursing home facilities.”

Nessel said her office is “vigorously going to be pursuing those who fail to provide care because they don’t properly staff their facilities.”

The SEIU plans to continue its push to highlight this with events across Detroit and rallies in front of the Fox Theater Tuesday and Wednesday, where the Democratic presidential candidates will debate.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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