After voting to strike during the coronavirus pandemic, when they were needed the most, nursing home workers at South Philadelphia’s St. Monica’s emerged with a contract that union leaders say is “night and day" compared to their previous contracts.
The new contract — which includes raises for the 130 employees, higher starting rates for new hires, and lower health-care costs — demonstrates the power of a strike threat during the crisis, especially on behalf of essential workers. Long-term care facilities have been hard hit by the virus.
The workers, represented by their union, District 1199C, were able to secure hazard pay for all job classifications, not just the nursing staff, and a commitment from the employer to provide more personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff — though that guarantee is not airtight, as there remains a nationwide shortage of PPE.
Nurses are getting $5 above their normal hourly rate for hazard pay, while nursing assistants are getting an increase of $2, and all other staffers are getting $1.50. As part of the new contract, all workers are getting $1.50 added to their rate and will get a roughly 2% raise throughout the four-year contract.
The contract was ratified unanimously earlier this month.
The workers voted to strike over their employer’s failure to bargain — the employer had stalled bargaining in March, said District 1199C’s Elyse Ford — but unsafe coronavirus conditions were also a major sticking point.
In interviews last month, workers said they were alarmed at the conditions at St. Monica’s, both for them and the residents they cared for. Residents who had tested positive were not being isolated. Workers were not getting the PPE they needed, they told The Inquirer, and staffing was dangerously low.
But, Ford said, “the employer was not taking the members seriously."
“We never want to put residents in harm’s way,” she said, but it took a strike vote to put St. Monica’s owner, Charles-Edouard Gros, on notice that workers had reached a breaking point.
Gros did not respond to a request for comment.
At least 16 residents at St. Monica’s have died of coronavirus complications, Ford said.
Under the contract, new service workers, including cleaners and dietary workers, will now start at $11 an hour, up from $10. Nursing assistants will start at $13 or $14 an hour, up from $12.50. And nurses will start at $24 an hour, up from $22. The union hopes the higher starting rates will help with hiring.
A similar story played out in Illinois this month, where thousands of nursing home workers voted to strike and ultimately won a contract that included pay raises, expanded sick leave, and hazard pay. And in workplaces deemed essential in Philadelphia and across the country, workers have threatened work stoppages and gone on strike in order to secure safer working conditions.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.