By TIM ROWDEN
Edmundson, MO – St. Louis Labor unions, community partners, and clergy joined 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers at Ascension Living’s St. Louis headquarters near Lambert Airport last week to demand Ascension provide fair wages to help recruit and retain workers at Ascension’s Our Lady of Peace nursing home in upstate New York.
Hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic, the caregivers have been working short-staffed. Ascension has closed units in the facility rather than pay the competitive wages that would allow the home to attract more staff.
The New York workers were joined by representatives from the Missouri AFL-CIO, St. Louis Labor Council, Missouri Jobs with Justice, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists-St. Louis Chapter and Missouri Senator Doug Beck (Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562).
Labor Council President Pat White said it’s no coincidence that Ascension’s corporate headquarters is located 745 miles away from its nursing home facilities in western New York.
“A few months ago, a lot of us were walking at another facility… at another nursing home that was treating its workers the same way,” White said, referring to the strike at Blue Circle Rehab and Nursing, owned by Blue Circle Holdings, LLC, which has its corporate headquarters in Spring Valley, NY.
“They do that on purpose,” White said.
Peter DeJesus, Jr., president of the Western New York Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and political coordinator for 1199SEIU was overwhelmed by the show of solidarity from St. Louis-area Labor unions that turned out to support the Ascension workers.
“In Labor, many times we talk about solidarity; that’s a word that’s used pretty often when it comes to Labor unions,” DeJesus said. “If there was ever a true picture of solidarity, this is what it is. This is solidarity without borders. Yes, the workplace issue is nearly a thousand miles away, but our brothers and sisters here in St. Louis answered the call.
“This is not an easy fight. It never is,” DeJesus said. “But when you want to do what’s right, you have to answer the call, you have to take the fight to where it is, which is why we are here in St. Louis calling on Ascension Living to treat their workers fairly, to give them the dignity and respect they deserve.”
BRINGING THE FIGHT TO ASCENSION’S DOOR
Unable to make any progress on a new contract, the union caregivers held a one-day strike at the nursing home on March 9, then traveled to St. Louis on March 15 to rally outside Ascension’s corporate headquarters.
Grace Bogdanove, vice president of the 1199SEIU’s Nursing Home Division in western New York, said workers and the union had no choice but to bring the fight to Ascension’s door.
“We came to the table with one thing in mind and that was making sure that our members are paid wages that met the area standard, an area standard that we have won over the past year in contract negotiations that we have won in other 1199 institutions in western New York, but Ascension Living doesn’t seem to care,” Bogdanove said. “Based here in St. Louis, they’re out of touch. We are here to demand Ascension meet the area standard in western New York, and we are not going to stop fighting until we get that.”
The union was scheduled to have another negotiating session with Ascension this week.
FAIR WAGES TO PROVIDE FOR THEIR FAMILIES
Ascension Living offers a starting wage at $1-to-$5 per hour below area standards in western New York.
Krista Diez, a licensed practical nurse who works in the dementia unit at Our Lady of Peace, said she works 60 to 70 hours a week to provide for her family on her low wages. Low staffing, as a result of Ascension’s low pay, is affecting residents’ care, she said.
“When we don’t have enough staff, residents don’t get that extra attention that they need. They can feel neglected at times,” Diez said. “Our residents’ mental health suffers if they don’t have that extra face-to-face time with us. They need human interaction, and we can’t provide that if there aren’t enough of us.”
FOCUSED ON PROFITS
Yedda Burton, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), with Ascension Living for 25 years, said the past four years have seen a dramatic turn at Our Lady of Peace from focusing on bedside care to focusing on profits.
“I love my residents and love to care for others,” Burton said. “The current working conditions that we face do not allow me to provide the care that I was trained to provide and that the residents deserve.”
Theresa Tomlin, a CNA with Ascension Living for 11 years, broke down in tears when describing the impact of the staffing shortage on the nursing home’s residents.
“I’m here to speak today on behalf of my residents who don’t have a voice,” Tomlin said. “These residents are family. For the past two years, while battling the COVID pandemic, I was the only family they had, holding their hands, letting them know that their family still loved them even though they couldn’t be in the building. Quality care starts with us, the aides and nurses. With the current staffing levels at Ascension Living, I do not have the time to provide the care that they deserve. Our staffing is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.”
White said Ascension could face consequences in St. Louis if a contract is not reached that includes fair wages for workers.
“A lot of us took part in the Ascension Golf Tournament last year, the senior PGA event that happened out at Norwood Country Club, which is a union golf course, and it was a big success,” White said. “But we’re going to make that a part of this if they don’t settle with these folks up in New York.”
“The people of St. Louis are behind you,” White told the New York state workers. “If it gets to it, we’re going to tell our folks not to go to that Ascension Golf Tournament. We’re going to go there and sit outside with signs that say, ‘If you’re a union member, don’t go.’ We can send them a message. If they don’t make some movement, we’re going to boycott that tournament.”
SIGN THE PETITION
Sign the petition to demand Ascension Living negotiate a fair contract with workers at Our Lady of Peace at: https://www.1199seiu.org/SupportOLP.