Members of Service Employees International Union 1199 New England held an informational picket outside Greenville Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation in Smithfield on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2023. Workers at the site and the facility owners have been at loggerheads over a new contract since the previous one expired in May. Also pictured is congressional candidate J. Aaron Regunberg. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
SMITHFIELD — Manuela Suggs left her eight-hour shift at Greenville Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation around 3 p.m. Wednesday so she could make it on time to a 4 p.m. medical appointment.
Even so, she found the time to join at least 30 of her coworkers at the facility’s Putnam Pike entrance in an informational picket — the first step in a march toward striking. Service Employees International Union 1199 New England (SEIU 1199) organized the rally in an effort to pressure Genesis Healthcare, the facility’s Pennsylvania-based owner, back to the negotiating table.
“It’s important that they see that we are united,” said Suggs, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), in Portuguese. “They need to pay us more.”
The union’s 110 registered nurses (RN), licensed practice nurses (LPN), CNAs, and maintenance workers had been working since May under an expired contract. According to representatives for SEIU 1199, there have been four contract meetings with little to no progress made.
The union is calling on Genesis to increase pay for low-wage workers, improve health benefits, and increase staffing. It added that all five of its Rhode Island contracts, plus two more Massachusetts, came up for renegotiation this year.
“We’ve asked for an economic proposal from them and they have not responded in five months,” said Nicole O’Loughlin, SEIU 1199 NE’s state council director. She added that Genesis canceled the last two negotiation sessions.
Lori Mayer, a spokesperson for the Greenville Center, said in an email that the company has been negotiating in good faith.
“We are disappointed that the union has chosen to picket and involve residents and families in private labor negotiations,” Mayer said. “But we will continue to negotiate in good faith with union management who represents our employees.”
The union also drew attention to the fact that the company was set to receive an almost 7% cost-of-living adjustment increase in state Medicaid funding in October. Of that, 80% must be allocated to frontline staff by statute according to the Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act.
“These people do not care about us,” said Oelutola Akingbade, a CNA at the facility who earns $20 an hour. “They give agency nurses $35.”
Brenda Toll, a registered nurse at Greenville, said that her pay in excess of $40 an hour is fine, but the deductible on the health insurance plan offered is too high.
“Our health insurance is bad,” she said. “They don’t contribute to our 401ks.”
Outside Greenville Skilled Nursing Rehabilitation in Smithfield where informational picket led by @seiu1199. Also here are CD1 candidates @AaronRegunberg @walterberbrick and @gabeamo. #unions #labor #RhodeIsland pic.twitter.com/OEzhmJWIwS
— Kevin Gomes Andrade (@KevinGAndrade) August 23, 2023
“We work short-staffed on the weekends,” Toll continued. “That means patient care is worse and that’s who I care about, our patients.”
Congressional candidates join the picket
Five Democratic candidates for Rhode Island’s open 1st Congressional District seat joined the workers picketing.
“We need to make sure that everybody, especially in critical industries like the care economy, is paid a fair wage,” said Gabriel Amo, a former White House Aide. “The workers are, like my moms and aunts and many other immigrant mothers and aunts.”
Amo, a Pawtucket native, has frequently touted the immigrant and working class roots of his Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, herself a care worker. Indeed, Amo’s mother is not alone according to a study of the pandemic immigrant health workforce published in April by the Migration Policy Institute.
The study found that immigrants made up 18% of the healthcare workforce in the U.S. and that approximately 50% of African immigrants in the healthcare field work in lower-paid support positions — like medical assistants and CNAs. Only 28% of African healthcare workers in the U.S. were either RNs or physicians.
“I don’t think the facts are coincidental,” said Amo, when asked whether he thought whether the large proportion of immigrant women of color in the workforce was a factor for low pay.
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1994. She said that low barriers to entry and word of mouth lead to large concentrations of immigrants working in such low-paying work.
“Some people in my family are CNAs,” she said while walking the picket line. “But because pay is not so high, you get new immigrants looking for the work.”
“At the end of the day, they really care about their patients,” Matos continued. “We called them heroes and were clapping for them during the pandemic. It’s only fair that we pay them good wages.”
Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano said her appearance was a continuation of her support for working class families.
“We need to do better as a society,” she said. “Every week I’m at a place trying to support working families.
— Kevin Gomes Andrade (@KevinGAndrade) August 23, 2023
“They take care of our people and we need to take care of them.”
Former Providence State Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg called on Genesis to enter into good faith negotiation with SEIU, noting that the U.S. has historically employed marginalized communities in low-wage jobs.
“It has always been easy to underpay immigrants and people of color,” he said. “These are people doing some of the most important work and they deserve fair pay.”
Former U.S. Naval War College Professor Walter Berbrick minced no words in saying systemic racism absolutely played a role in the low pay of many healthcare workers.
“It’s important we acknowledge these problems,” he said. “You have to make your voice heard to get people to come to the negotiating table.”
“Today is a little win.”
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