The union leading a strike at 11 nursing homes run by Infinity Healthcare Management is trying to turn up the heat on the owners ahead of a planned resumption of negotiations.
On Saturday afternoon, about two dozen rank-and-file members of SEIU Healthcare rallied and marched before TV cameras at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago, promoting their demand to lift the minimum hourly pay for certified nursing assistants to $15.50 and for other workers to $15.
“We just want the same thing that all other nursing homes have gotten,” said Becky Steele, a CNA who says she makes $12.20 an hour after working 11 years at Parker Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Streater, a town about 100 miles southwest of Chicago.
Steele pointed to a two-year SEIU Healthcare contract, reached in May, that covers about 100 nursing homes in Illinois. That deal, which followed a strike threat by the union, boosted base pay for workers, set up hazard bonuses during the pandemic, and expanded sick-leave benefits during the crisis.
The union’s Infinity bargaining unit includes about 700 workers — mostly CNAs, dietary aides, housekeepers and laundry workers.
At the rally, the union members voiced concerns that residents are now in the hands of “strangers” brought in as substitute workers from other Infinity facilities and from temporary agencies. The 11 nursing homes totaled nearly 1,800 residents in January before the coronavirus arrived, according to Illinois Public Health Department records.
“Our residents are missing us right now,” Steele said. “They’re our family and we are their family. We know they’re missing us. They’re uncomfortable with people taking care of them that they do not know.”
Moishe Gubin and Michael Blisko, the chain’s main owners, have had some of the highest COVID infection and death rates among large-scale proprietors of Illinois nursing homes, a WBEZ investigation found. As of Nov. 6, Gubin’s ownership stake in long-term care facilities amounted to 8.5 deaths per 100 occupied beds, the second-highest fatality rate of the 15 largest owners in the state. Blisko, meanwhile, had 60.1 infections per 100, the second-highest rate for infections.
Gubin and Blisko control dozens of nursing homes in eight states through Infinity and Strawberry Fields, a real-estate investment trust based in South Bend, Indiana. They also have interests in related companies ranging from pharmaceuticals to hospice care.
“This is not a mom-and-pop operation,” said Shaba Andrich, the union’s vice president of nursing homes.
The most recent contract covering the 11 unionized facilities expired July 1, Andrich said. Negotiations to replace that pact began in August. The talks broke down quickly, leading to the strike, which began on Monday.
Andrich said the sides are holding their first negotiation session since before the strike on Tuesday afternoon. He said the session was called by Emil P. Totonchi, a mediator assigned by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Apart from wages, the union says it is demanding $2 per hour in hazard pay for at least 90 days and adequate personal-protective equipment.
Andrich said COVID has killed several Infinity employees: “Workers are really putting their lives on the line. It’s unacceptable to use [Medicaid funds] and then pay them minimum wage.”
All 11 of the Infinity facilities had staffing coverage that was “below” or “much below” the national average during the four quarters leading up to the pandemic, according to federal ratings analyzed by WBEZ.
The WBEZ investigation found that nursing homes that operate for profit in Illinois have had more infections and deaths per bed than nonprofit facilities. The difference is most stark in the 20 counties hit hardest by the virus. In those counties, for-profit nursing homes have had nearly double the death rates as nonprofit facilities.
Gubin on Saturday evening declined to answer questions about the labor dispute, his chain’s staffing coverage and its COVID numbers.
“We are not negotiating based on public opinion,” he wrote in an email to WBEZ.
Lobbyists and spokespersons for Illinois nursing homes have argued that wages and staffing levels are limited by low Medicaid payments. They have argued their COVID numbers reflect the virus’s prevalence in surrounding communities — not the staffing levels of their facilities.
They say the pandemic will force many nursing homes to close their doors unless the government steps up with more aid.
Besides Parker, the nursing homes affected by the strike include Ambassador Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Continental Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Southpoint Nursing and Rehabilitation Center — all in Chicago — as well as City View Multicare Center in Cicero, Niles Nursing and Rehabilitation, Oak Lawn Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center, Forest View Rehabilitation in Itasca, West Suburban Nursing and Rehabilitation in Bloomingdale, and Momence Meadows Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.