The Pandemic Hastened Change in New York’s Hudson ValleyFebruary 23, 2021
But workers at two area healthcare facilities are waging age-old fights for pay and benefits.
As COVID-19 raged throughout New York City’s metropolitan area, there was an unexpected pilgrimage north to New York’s Hudson Valley.
Real estate brokers touted economic renewal and a revived sense of close-knit, small-town community.
Healthcare facilities proudly displayed banners proclaiming that “Healthcare Heroes Work Here.” It was a tableau of Rockwellian Americana.
The reality is quite different. Gentrification’s soft-focus excludes the area’s essential workers, most of whom are longtime residents.
Far from the Hudson Valley’s social media “glow up,” workers at Columbia Memorial Hospital (CMH) and Livingston Hills Nursing Home in Hudson, NY, toil caring for the sick; short staffed, exhausted by unbearable overtime, and fearful for their lives and the lives of their families. At both Livingston Hills and CMH, 1199ers have been in protracted contract negotiations, without raises and denied crisis pay for over a year, despite very public campaigns and intense media scrutiny. Rather than heroes, they say, they are treated like zeros.
“The signs?” Livingston Hills CNA Donna Decker inquired incredulously. “The owner doesn’t value us. If he did, he would not be demanding that we give up our 1199 health insurance for insurance with high premiums and co-pays. Our wages don’t even keep up with the cost of living, so most of us can’t to afford that. And [he’s doing this] right in the middle of a devastating healthcare crisis?”
In late fall negotiations, Livingston Hills management refused to discuss any health insurance proposal other than their own. They abruptly left the bargaining session.
Furious Livingston Hills members began organizing. A December candlelight vigil at the nursing home drew strong community support, including long timers, newcomers, and elected officials.
“You’re fighting for something that should be so simple, in front of a sign that’s calling you heroes,” said Kamal Johnson, mayor of Hudson, a town that has become emblematic of Hudson Valley’s schism between long-time residents and wealthy, downstate gentrifiers. “I’m here to make sure that you have the support of the community. I want you guys to know that I have your back.”
Anne Marie Fran, a Livingston Hills housekeeper, who recently contracted COVID-19, is pleased with the community support and recognition. She and her Livingston Hills co-workers are no longer invisible.
“We’re the ones who care for and about the residents, and make sure their health and safety comes first,” she says. “If we can’t take care of ourselves because the owner takes away our health benefits, how are we going to be able to work here, to stay here and take care of our residents?”
About 10 minutes north of Livingston Hills, more than 750 members at CMH (plus additional members at offsites across Columbia and Greene Counties) are in a similar situation.
CMH members have not received a raise in more than a year. And in recent contract negotiations, the hospital offered low wages and insisted that 1199 members pay more for health insurance, knowing well that some can’t even afford the current insurance. When negotiating committee members insisted healthcare workers should not be without health insurance or on Medicaid, management called affordable health benefits an “unrealistic ask.”
Members said, “enough is enough.” Despite temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and a looming snowstorm, more than three hundred 1199SEIU members with families, friends and community supporters took to the streets for a late December informational picket. Driven by disrespect, 1199ers organized the strongest worker and community action at CMH in decades.
“Of course it was,” said Colleen Daley, a CMH RN for 10 years. “It’s unacceptable that an important community healthcare institution, and one of the biggest employers in the region, is treating its workers with so little respect. We’re frontline healthcare workers, facing unimaginable challenges during this pandemic.”
CMH and Livingston Hills 1199ers say negotiations moved in a positive direction after making their voices heard.
“I love my job and interacting with patients; that’s what keeps me at the hospital,” says Nancy Richardson, a housekeeper at the hospital for over 20 years. “I didn’t plan to leave until I retire, but at $15.50 an hour, if we have to pay for health insurance, I won’t have a choice.”
At press time, CMH members settled an agreement that includes significant improvements to wages, retroactive pay, and base rates for certain classifications. Workers also maintained their health plan and won increased employer contributions for family coverage. See the next issue of 1199 Magazine for the complete story.