Nursing Home Workers In Illinois Move Toward Strike As Deadly Virus Spreads

Nursing Home Employees
Service Employees International Union members help announce initial results of a vote to authorize a strike at dozens of nursing homes in the state. An SEIU contract that covers 100 nursing homes, mostly in the Chicago area, expires Friday. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ
Nursing Home Employees
Service Employees International Union members help announce initial results of a vote to authorize a strike at dozens of nursing homes in the state. An SEIU contract that covers 100 nursing homes, mostly in the Chicago area, expires Friday. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

Nursing Home Workers In Illinois Move Toward Strike As Deadly Virus Spreads

As COVID-19 deaths tied to Illinois nursing homes surge, employees of 40 facilities have given a green light for their union to call a strike during talks to replace a contract that expires Friday.

The Service Employees International Union contract covers about 100 nursing homes in Illinois. SEIU officials said the strike would begin May 8 and said they expect workers at several more homes in coming days to authorize the potential work stoppage.

The union says it’s pushing for improvements in protective equipment, safety protocols, hazard pay, base pay, paid time off for COVID-related illness, staffing, health insurance and transparency about COVID-19 cases.

“We deserve more,” said Laverne Johnson, 65, a laundry worker at Wentworth Rehabilitation and Health Care Center on Chicago’s South Side. “That’s why we’re ready to strike for our lives. Our lives and our residents’ lives matter.”

Johnson spoke Monday afternoon outside Wentworth, 201 W 69th St, as part of a small rally held to announce the initial results of the strike-authorization vote.

The nursing homes employ 10,000 SEIU members, mostly in the Chicago area. The members include certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietary aides, activity aides and others.

Many of the SEIU-represented facilities have faced COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Illinois Association of Health Care Facilities, a group representing the nursing homes in the negotiations, is accusing SEIU of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to win demands that have little to do with the spread of the virus.

“Now more than ever, the health and safety of our vulnerable seniors and infirm residents should be our shared priority,” the association said Friday in a memo to state lawmakers.

The IAHCF says it is offering an 11% hourly pay increase and proposing a one-year contract extension pending a longer-term agreement.

SEIU says a raise of that amount would not be enough. The union is demanding a $15 hourly floor for all nursing home workers, according Shaba Andrich, a vice president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents workers in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas.

Nursing homes account for 35% of Illinois’s COVID-19 deaths, according to a WBEZ analysis of state data posted Friday.

Some nursing home workers have accused their employers of providing insufficient staffing and personal protective equipment and of underreporting COVID-19-related illnesses and deaths.

The Health Care Council of Illinois, a trade group for nursing homes in the state, last week said they were doing their best to fight the virus and protect employees.

In 2017, workers at more than 50 of the SEIU-covered nursing homes voted to authorize a strike. But the sides agreed on a new contract before any work stoppage.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about criminal justice. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.