Nursing home workers deserve and demand better

November 17, 2021


Every day of the last two years, nursing home heroes have put their personal fears about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic aside and gone to work to care for residents stricken by the deadly virus. Many of these dedicated workers lacked basic personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves and gowns. Many got sick. Some died.

Believe it or not, over 33,000 health-care heroes, all members of 1199SEIU, in 250 facilities across the state now must fight for quality, affordable health care for themselves and their families.

How is that even possible that as the holidays — a time of celebration and giving — approach, these dedicated heroes are having to fight for the respect they have earned on the front lines?

Nursing home workers, like caregivers across the country, have gone through the most difficult challenges of their lives. Fatigue, stress and burnout are commonplace.

Short-staffing is so severe that caregivers have grave concerns about the quality of care their frail and elderly residents receive. It’s a vicious cycle when experienced, qualified caregivers quit their jobs due to overwork and stress, leaving nursing homes with fewer staff and even more overwork and stress.

Our members’ contracts expired on Sept. 30. We have been meeting with New York’s for-profit nursing home owners since August to come to terms on a new agreement.

Some of the owners have committed to pay for quality health care, but some have not. They would rather create a situation where dedicated caregivers must accept sub-standard health benefits or pay for private insurance. Many are forced to choose between paying the rent or paying for health care for themselves and their families.

These caregivers continue to risk their health to care for their residents. It’s wrong — and unfair to workers who have made such sacrifices.

These are workers like Deanna Calabrese, 44, a licensed practical nurse at The Wayne Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in The Bronx, where she has worked for 21 years. She caught the virus at the start of the pandemic last year from a patient whose condition rapidly deteriorated and died. She is what they call a “long hauler” whose overall health continues to suffer. She desperately needs complete health coverage.

Or Rosalind Francis, 63, a certified nursing assistant at Citadel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at Kingsbridge in The Bronx. She is angry that she and some of her colleagues could be denied complete, quality health insurance after all they’ve been through.

“At first, we didn’t have enough PPE and patients were dying left, right and center,” she says. “Three or four died every week in the beginning. It was terrible; you cried and you prayed. I’m angry at having to fight for health insurance. We deserve it, we worked damn hard through this pandemic.”

Or Laura Dennis, a 46-year-old licensed practical nurse at White Oaks Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, in Woodbury, L.I., who has to pay $86 a week for sub-standard health coverage because her employer doesn’t cover nurses.

“It cost me $75 just to take my children to the pediatrician’s office” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense that nursing home workers have to fight for health insurance. It makes me mad. It hurts my whole soul.”

It’s not OK that many health-care heroes who worked bravely through the pandemic, at great risk to their wellbeing, must struggle to pay for health benefits. That’s why we will be out in force today for a “Together We Stand” march from Times Square to our union offices at 498 Seventh Ave., where we will hold a massive rally to make our voices heard.

Society must not turn its back on the elderly and frail — or the people who care for them.

Gresham is the president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.