A majority of the 130 unionized workers at St. Monica Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare, a nursing home in South Philadelphia hit hard by the coronavirus, voted Friday afternoon to authorize a strike.
The workers — a group of direct-care and service workers represented by District 1199C — say they’ve watched, horrified, as the nursing home has let health and safety fall to the wayside as the coronavirus spreads through the 180-bed facility.
By now, it’s a common refrain: Across the country, health-care workers, along with other types of essential workers, have been sounding the alarm on unsafe working conditions since the pandemic began. Some, like Philadelphia Port and SEPTA workers, have walked off the job or threatened to, in order to get better safety precautions in place. But there haven’t been widespread strikes among American medical workers, making the situation at St. Monica’s a test case.
“It’s not that we want to strike," said Elyse Ford, vice president of 1199C, “but at some point the employer has to realize that he has to be fair to our members.”
Sixteen residents have died of the coronavirus, Ford said. At least eight residents had been sent to the hospital, said one nurse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“We’re losing people left and right,” the nurse said. “That’s what’s killing us the most."
The nursing home only began isolating coronavirus patients this week, according to interviews with four workers and the union’s attorney, Ryan Hancock. But, they said, there are still residents who have tested positive who are sharing rooms with those who have not. Most rooms have two beds.
St. Monica’s owner, Charles-Edouard Gros, and the facility’s attorney, David Jasinski, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Like other health-care workers around the country, the nursing home staffers say they lack proper personal protective equipment. While nurses have N95 masks, service workers — those in dietary, laundry, and environmental service — only get surgical masks. The facility has been running so low on gowns that management told them Friday they’d have to start wearing trash bags, two nurses said.
Staffing is another major issue, as 20 employees, or 15% of staff, have tested positive or are awaiting test results, Ford said. One worker, a 27-year veteran nurse, has been in the hospital for a week with the virus and is in intensive care, Hancock said.
Staffing ratios dictate that there should be two nurses and at least five nursing assistants for 60 residents, which one nurse said was “a dream” even before the virus hit. Now, it’s common to have just two nursing assistants for 60 residents, she said, because so many people have been out sick.
The list of concerns goes on: Their employer isn’t allowing workers to use their earned sick time, they said. It isn’t giving them any information about which coworkers tested positive. A security guard, not a medical professional, is in charge of taking temperatures when workers enter the building and the temperature gun doesn’t seem to work correctly. And while the union was able to get hazard pay for nurses, that benefit wasn’t extended to lower-wage service workers.
The workers have been working without a contract since April 1, and the union says that in March, after three bargaining sessions, management stopped responding to the union’s requests to bargain. The strike is technically over the employer’s failure to bargain, but Ford said health and safety is also a major concern for her members.
On Friday afternoon, the workers voted by 63-4 in favor of authorizing a strike. The soonest they could go on strike is May 4, as the union has to give a 10-day strike notice, as per labor law.
Gros, St. Monica’s owner, bought the facility along with three other nursing homes from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2014. He turned the facilities into some of the most profitable nursing homes in the region through cutting staffing and taking on sicker patients, according to a 2018 Inquirer analysis. At the same time, federal regulators cited Gros’ four facilities 14 times for harming patients.
In the three years after he bought St. Monica’s, staffing was cut by 4% and acuity — which measures how serious patients’ ailments are — went up by 15%. In 2017, it was the fourth most profitable nursing home in the region.
The facility received a one-star rating in 2019 from federal regulators, a number based on health inspections by state officials, staffing levels, and mostly self-reported quality measures.