“They call us heroes. They call us heroes so we need heroes pay. Don’t call us heroes and treat us like dirt.“
“I work in supplies. I’m a CNA but I work in supplies and transportation,” Tenah Nimmo-Powell told me outside the Bannister Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Providence, where caregivers represented by SEIU 1199 NE have begun a 3-day strike to demand an end to unsafe staffing levels and poverty wages.
“Safe staffing is a problem,” continued Nimmo-Powell. “In March up through April we started getting sick – the staff. We lost the receptionist. She died. And I got sick. I took it home to my husband and he got real sick. A couple of the staff members got sick. By the end of June the patients started to get sick, the CNAs were getting sick, at lot of our CNAs were out sick. Every week two or three of our CNAs were out. We had 20 deaths. We had 100 patients with Covid. And the staffing is still bad.”
“It’s difficult to work here with out safe staffing, before Covid and now,” agreed Sylvia Wright-Collins, who has worked as a CNA for 20 years, first at Park View, now at Bannister. “People died. Some of our workers and patients died. It’s very important to know that we are doing this for our residents also.”
Yesterday the CEO of Bannister’s parent company, Centers Health Care, called the staff outside.
“He had nothing to tell us,” said Wright-Collins.
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“He offered 40 cents for a raise,” said Ninmo-Powell. “That is ridiculous. We’re willing to settle if they give us a decent raise with safe staffing.Even though it’s not a law in Rhode Island, another nursing home does it. They have safe staffing, not because it’s a law, but it’s safe for the residents.”
Bannister caregivers began their strike just days after caregivers at both Charlesgate Center and Greenville Center achieved groundbreaking contract settlements that guarantee residents well over 4.1 hours of daily hands-on care at Greenville and more than double the current hours of care per resident at Charlesgate, while including protection against mandatory overtime, significant wage increases, affordable healthcare and language ensuring increased nursing home funding at the state level goes directly to worker wages.
The union submitted contract proposals over one year ago that would create safe staffing standards of 4.1 direct-care hours, wage boosts, affordable healthcare and training opportunities, Bannister Center has not accepted these proposals, despite caregivers risking personal safety for months throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
Bannister Center has had 15-20 COVID-19 resident and caregiver deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Frontline caregivers, overwhelmingly Black and brown women, are paid a starting rate of only $12 an hour. Despite healthy profits and large windfalls of federal funding, Bannister’s New York-based management decided to disregard the urgent needs of health care heroes who have shown up everyday in a deadly pandemic to provide high quality compassionate care.
“They call us heroes,” said Wright-Collins. “They call us heroes so we need heroes pay. Don’t call us heroes and treat us like dirt.”
Rhode Island currently ranks 41st in the nation for average hours of care nursing home residents receive. Studies show that infection-control violations are significantly higher in short-staffed facilities.
A recent article in the American Medical Association and authored by Jose Figueroa MD and MPH at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found, “high-performing nursing homes for nurse staffing had fewer COVID-19 cases than low-performing nursing homes.”
Caregivers and allies across the state have been rallying to end the short staffing crisis for years, most recently urging the passage of the Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act. To date, the Rhode Island General Assembly has failed to pass legislation, opting instead for a toothless study commission. UpriseRI spoke to Representatives Terri-Denise Cortvriend (Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth), Karen Alzate (Democrat, District 60, Pawtucket) and David Bennett (Democrat, District 20, Warwick) outside Bannister House.
Bennett: We have to make a move. We can’t sit back and just watch this. And now they want to study it? What are you going to study? These people are dying. These people don’t make a living wage. If we don’t do something now – especially during Covid – they’re risking their lives every day.”
And if they all walked off the job, management wouldn’t come in here and do it. Management would hire someone else to work here. That’s what’s bad about medical. You can’t walk off the floor and leave the patients. Staff has to take turns and picket in shifts. Because we’re dedicated. We love our patients. We get to know them intimately. We’re washing them up, feeding them, we’re putting their teeth in, putting in their hearing aids, making them look good for when family’s coming in.
It’s a shame that they’re getting low pay and not a lot of thanks for the job they do. Then, when McDonald’s offers more money than what their making –
UpriseRI: Which they do.
Bennett: What would you do? But this dedicated person will not do that. They’ll say, ‘No, this is meaningful.'”
UpriseRI: I know this is not my job. I don’t have what it takes to do what they do everyday. I am in awe of their ability.
Alzate: They do this because they care. They don’t do this because they know they’re going to make money off this kind of job. They do this because they care. It’s disrespectful to not give them a living wage. You’re disrespecting them by saying ‘We’re going to hire someone to cover these shifts while you’re on strike, because we don’t want to give you money that you deserve.'”
UpriseRI: And they’ll probably pay more for the people coming in…
Alzate: They are paying more! They pay a lot more.
Bennett: They bring in less experienced people. And they’re not into it.
Cortvriend: They bring in people with no relationship with the residents.
Alzate: A lot of these striking workers are from these communities. They know the community and the families. They know how to connect themselves to their patients. This is something we need to bring tons of light to at the General Assembly. I know that we’ve been trying to push this. It should be a no-brainer.
Cortvriend: If we’re going to have a study commission, that commission should be meeting now. We should be doing something.
UpriseRI: We’ve been dealing with this issue, at the State House, for five years, at least.
Cortvriend: It’s definitely time to do this.
UpriseRI: So how do we bring the message here to the General Assembly?
Alzate: We need to stand in solidarity, all of us, whether we come back in November or January, we need to continue to push this issue forward.
UpriseRI: Safe staffing and higher pay could be a budget item.
Cortvriend: There’s going to be all kinds of other things in the budget.
Bennett: There’ll be less important things in the budget and they’ll pass but they won’t look at something very important like this. This isn’t going away. If the General Assembly stays out until April, this issue is still here. And we have to deal with it now.
The way I’m doing it is going public. I’m part of leadership. I’m supposed to be loyal. I am loyal, but my life is taking care of people, you know?And I can’t jump out of that suit and put on another – it’s just not in my makeup. So I’ll fight with Mattiello or whoever is in that seat until this is done.
UpriseRI: This doesn’t end when Covid ends…
Alzate: If anything, Covid highlighted this more. It’s not going away.
Bennett: Issues moves like a turtle at the State House, until they want something done, then it moves like a rabbit. Ever notice that?
UpriseRI: That makes it seem like there’s one person making all the decisions, instead of a legislative body. Because we’re not seeing a process work itself out, we’re seeing a decision made, and then it happens. That doesn’t seem to be the way a representative democracy is supposed to work.
Cortvriend: There’s a lot of things like that at the legislature.
Alzate: The best thing we can do is continue to bring this to leadership and let them know what our communities want and what our communities need. That’s how I fight this.
Here’s all the video of the speakers at the event:
Representative David Bennett: