In this screenshot, the AFL-CIO’s Fred Redmond speaks during a virtual union rally.

Leaders of two major unions brought out the top brass and dug deep into their ranks so that nursing home staff, family members and a current resident could share the ways understaffing has affected them during a live, virtual event Thursday.

The SEIU and the AFL-CIO billed the Facebook event as a rally in support of a federal nursing home staffing mandate, but speakers were also more than willing to lob broad accusations of corporate profit-taking in the healthcare system.

In particular, union speakers and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) attacked the American Health Care Association for protesting the Biden administration’s planned staffing minimum, whose release is expected any day.

“Now we will have an opportunity with this to do right by those who rely on nursing home care and those workers who provide that care,” said Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas. “With our senior population expected to double in the coming decades, there is no time to lose, but we are in a fight. Not surprisingly, the nursing home industry is pushing back and spending millions of dollars to try to stop these life-changing standards all in the name of corporate greed.”

Kelley’s union was joined by the AFL-CIO, a federation with member organizations that represent a small share of nursing home workers but have largely been quiet during ongoing staffing debates. The largest union organization in the US, it is becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of nursing home standards. Throughout the event Thursday, speakers encouraged nursing home workers to submit their workforce challenges to a new website for a “Better Care Now” campaign. 

“The pandemic may have exposed and deepened the cracks in the healthcare system, but they were always there,” said Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer for the national organization. “Nursing home workers have been sounding the alarm for decades. The nursing homes are chronically understaffed. Their workers are forced to manage care for dozens of patients at a time, which is dangerous and exhausting for workers and means residents are not getting the level of care that they deserve.”

But Redmond said “disastrous” outcomes such as more falls and higher mortality rates could be easily avoided.

“The solution isn’t complicated. It just takes sufficient staff levels. That’s all it takes,” said Redmond, a former steelworker who later referred incorrectly to the regulatory staffing mandate that’s being developed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for more than a year as a piece of legislation.

Redmond said the staffing mandate would force for-profit providers in particular to offer better benefits and increase pay, rather than “exploit” women and workers of color.

“This federal staffing standard for nursing homes can literally change that,” he said. “Nursing homes will have to hire more nurses and nursing assistants, and they will have to pay more. This standard will lay the foundation for improving care and care jobs.”

The American Health Care Association Thursday declined to respond to comments made during the union event, pointing instead to a letter President and CEO Mark Parkinson sent to President Joe Biden earlier this week. In it, Parksinon laid out the complex situation in which nursing homes find themselves, having already increased wages and benefits but still down 190,000 workers since the pandemic’s start. Estimates have show that the sector would need to spend $11 billion annually and hire an additional 191,000 workers to comply with a possible 4.1 hour per patient day standard.

“If your administration imposes this mandate, more nursing homes will close, especially facilities that uniquely serve our most vulnerable,” Parkinson warned Biden. “Nursing homes that primarily care for residents on Medicaid won’t have the resources to recruit staff or pay for this mandate. Those facilities, as well as those who they serve and employ, will be hurt the most. To reiterate, this policy will have the opposite impact than intended. The unintended consequences will be numerous and damaging to the nation’s ability to serve seniors in need.”

On Thursday, Schakowsky, who had been scheduled to appear live, instead submitted a video for the event, reiterating criticism of AHCA she made earlier this year in a separate event on Capitol Hill. But she also trained her attacks on all companies investing in nursing homes.

“Safe staffing standards will save lives,” she said. “We know that private equity, rich companies are getting involved in nursing homes right now. Why are they doing that? It’s not so much about the elderly or residents of those homes. It’s about the money. That is why we need to rein them in. We need to set the standards of the road.”