Photo by Michael Lawson, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Union workers at Broomall Presbyterian Village in Broomall, Pa., picketed and passed out fliers to passers-by after going 10 months without a contract.

Philadelphia health care workers fight for a contract

Thursday, March 17th, 2011 

BROOMALL, Pa. — Workers and union officials stood outside of Broomall Presbyterian Village, chanting and handing out leaflets on a recent rain-soaked Thursday. Broomall, as the nursing home is known, is tucked away in Philadelphia’s tony Main Line suburbs. Workers here voted to unionize in April 2010. Almost a year later, they’re still without a contract.

The Broomall workers made their public pitch after holding nine bargaining sessions in the last 10 months.

 “We’re frustrated,” said Sonia Hedlum-Curtis, a certified nursing assistant. “We haven’t gotten anywhere really.”

The fight at Broomall is likely to replay around the country in coming years. The health care and nursing fields are expected to grow quickly, and unionization rates are low. Employment for home health aides, and personal and home care aides is projected to grow from 1.7 million in 2008 to more than 2.5 million by 2018.  There were close to 1.5 million nursing aides, orderlies and attendants in 2008; their ranks are expected to grow almost 20 percent by 2018. Only 17 percent of hospital workers were unionized in 2008. By contrast, in other parts of the health care field, the figure falls below 14 percent.  

At Broomall, the employees are trying to buck that trend. Following an organizing campaign, a significant majority of the home’s 140 employees voted to join SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, a local of the Service Employees International Union. The main goals in unionizing, workers said, were better wages, less expensive health care costs and the opportunity to have a stronger voice in the workplace.

June Nurse has been at Broomall for 18 years in housekeeping. She makes about $28,000 annually and takes care of two grandchildren, who are on a state health insurance plan because she says she can’t afford to put them on hers.

“I have to pay $100 per month for health care, plus $25 co-pay to see my primary doctor,” said Nurse. “Then I have to buy my medicine. I can’t afford it on $13.61 an hour.”

Hedlum-Curtis said she and her colleagues at the 147-bed nursing home and rehabilitation center also want a bigger voice in patient care. Her duties include taking patients’ vital signs, making sure they eat correctly and even assisting with showering.  She makes less than $13 per hour and has worked at the Broomall facility for 10 years.

Alma Simmons is also a nursing assistant at Broomall. She’s been there for almost 12 years and earns $13.43 per hour. “CNA work is hard,” she said. “You have to get them up in the morning, wash them, dress them, put them in a chair if they can’t walk.”

Simmons says the number of patients each worker cares for is too high. “You have to get them up for breakfast at a certain time,” she said, but “you cannot get eight people up in an hour.” She hopes that a union will help workers address the nurse-to-patient ratio.  

Broomall Presbyterian Village is owned by Philadelphia Presbytery Homes Inc., a senior living provider for more than 2,500 residents in the greater Philadelphia region. According to the union, Medicaid filings by the company show a $2 million profit in 2009 — a 43 percent increase over 2007. In the latest bargaining session, employees agreed to a management proposal of a one-year contract, but asked for an across-the-board 60-cent raise and a 75 percent to 85 percent employer contribution to health care costs. Management at the Broomall facility wants a one-year contract with a wage freeze and no change to the current health care contribution structure. Wages have also been frozen for all workers since bargaining began.
Because of ongoing negotiations, management of the Broomall facility would not comment on specific details of the process.  

“We have tried to maintain regular communications with employees during this process,” said Dan Magee, director of communications for Philadelphia Presbytery Homes Inc. “Throughout this process, we remain committed to bargaining in good faith toward the utmost fairness to our employees and — most importantly — the sustained, high quality of life for our residents.”

For workers, the clock is ticking. April marks a year since the vote to unionize. If workers and management have not reached a contract by then, workers can vote to decertify the bargaining unit —functionally voting the union back out again.

Magee says it’s not uncommon for first contract negotiations to take a long time.

The Employer Free Choice Act, which failed in the 111th Congress, included a provision that would have allowed either side to take their dispute to federal mediation when an agreement was not reached within 90 days. After 30 days of federal mediation, the dispute would go to binding arbitration.

“A lot of people who vote for a union never get a first contract because the laws are too weak,” said Kevin Hefty, the union’s vice president.

A 2008 study (pdf) by the MIT Sloan School of Management found that between 1999 and 2004, 56 percent of certified unions were successful in reaching a first contract. But only 38 percent reached a contract within one year.

“Besides having an arbitrator,” Hefty said, the free choice act would have given employers “a deadline and an incentive to be reasonable.”  

Without the act, the negotiations can drag on for months, as they have at Broomall. Regina Robinson sits on the bargaining committee at Broomall. Robinson, an 18-year employee, works in restorative care, helping patients during exercise sessions as well as doing the work of a certified nursing assistant. She joined the rally outside the home after her shift,

Robinson said she is not afraid of losing her job.

“If I was afraid, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she said. “We still have to stand tall.  We all have to stand together.”

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