Buffalo LPN Brenda Anderson's Work Is A Labor Of LoveFebruary 21, 2019
“Working in a nursing home is not meant for everybody. It is real work. It must be in your heart.”
Brenda Anderson has worked as an LPN in Buffalo nursing homes for 25 years, and for most of them she’s been a union delegate.
When the home where she was working 11 years ago closed, Catholic Health offered her a job at St. Catherine Laboure nursing home because of her long service with the organization. Her first order of business when she arrived at St. Catherine’s was to spark a campaign to organize the workers there by explaining the benefits of 1199SEIU membership.
“When I first started in nursing homes, I was making $5 or $6 an hour and living below the poverty line. I know how important coming together in union is, if we’re going to fight for better pay and conditions,” said Anderson.
“We need management to be able to sit down with us, so we can go back and forth and understand what we’re doing in the trenches,” she added, “as opposed to them just imposing policies and procedures on us.” It took patience over several years of organizing at St. Catherine’s, but when the issue was put to a vote in 2008, workers voted yes for 1199SEIU membership by an overwhelming margin of 88 to 2.
“You feel really good when you come into work, and you’re not worried about some new policy being imposed: You can just concentrate on the patients,” recalled Anderson, “Before we had a contract, a family could say x, y and z about you, and you could be fired. Often, they wouldn’t even listen to our side of the story. We were ‘at will’ employees.
“During our union campaign, we heard horror stories about how we would all lose our jobs if we voted to join 1199. But most of the people who were here when we first organized are still here,” said Anderson.
Anderson’s work as a delegate is about fairness, relationship building and communication. She shared a story of representing a co-worker who was facing disciplinary action. The worker who lives in Darien, NY, a 45-minute drive from the facility, was unable to get to work because of a storm-felled tree in her driveway.
Anderson immediately began investigating what really happened and was able to help turn things around.
“I know how important coming together in union is, if we're going to fight for better pay and conditions.”
“There is a no excuses policy on absences at St. Catherine’s,” said Anderson, “But we brought in newspaper clippings about the storm and explained the situation to the administrator and they made an exception. That is when I first knew that we would be able to work with the new management.”
As well as making sure the contract is followed in the nursing home and serving on the bargaining committee to negotiate better wages and conditions when the contract comes up for renewal, Anderson also understands the value of political action. She has gone with fellow 1199ers to Albany to lobby for much needed healthcare dollars.
“We had a big victory when they brought in Paid Family Leave. I haven’t used it yet myself, but everybody knows somebody who has,” she said. “We will get there on safe staffing legislation, too. It is challenging, but we need to keep fighting and never give up.”
In addition to her work as a delegate, Anderson is responsible for looking after 20 residents at a time. There are 40 residents in total on the floor where she works. Staffing levels at the home are still not ideal, said Anderson.
“Making sure that the resident to- staff ratio is what it should be is something that is going to take a long time to achieve. There is no legislation for it in New York State,” she points out.
Anderson is determined to help change that, but in the meantime the residents who depend on her every day remain her priority.
“Sometimes it is just about having a moment to give a resident a hug,” she said, “But we also want to be able to feel comfortable spending 15 minutes talking to a resident and listening to them reminisce. Even if I miss a break, I try to find time for my ladies and gents.
“Working in a nursing home is not meant for everybody. It is real work. It must be in your heart. You can’t just come to work for the paycheck. We’re all going to be here someday.”