Weeks ago, union leaders stood alongside nursing home association executives as they praised a major budget victory in Pennsylvania. A new strike threat may undermine that fragile relationship.

Workers from more than three dozen Pennsylvania nursing homes put three corporate-owned chains on notice of their intent to strike over wage and working condition demands.

Officials with SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania said Friday they will strike if their “staffing and accountability demands” are not met. An official strike date was not given on a Zoom call that announced the work stoppage intentions.

The group announced they would file Unfair Labor Practice charges against Comprehensive-, Guardian-, and Priority-owned nursing homes. The workers say the companies have refused to provide information about staffing and agency costs during contract bargaining, and they alleged some workplace practices have led to safety concerns.

In a statement to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Sunday, Guardian Healthcare said staff and resident safety “is, and always has been, our top priority.”

“Many long-term care providers across the country are confronting the challenge of employees leaving their jobs for other positions, often outside of healthcare,” the company said. “Guardian strives to recruit and retain team members with competitive market wages. To that end, many of Guardian’s sites have increased their wage scales multiple times over the past several years.”

Guardian officials also said they were willing to negotiate with the SEIU on behalf of our team members “for as long as it takes to reach a new agreement.”  

Among the union’s demands:

 •  Substantial wage increases, including a $16 nursing home minimum wage, a $20 minimum for nurse aides, and a $25 minimum for nurses. 

•  Employer-paid health insurance and inclusion of all homes in the Health and Welfare Fund.

 •  Protection of the existing contract in the event of a sale.

 •  Ensure employers follow new state regulations governing staffing in nursing homes.

 •  A written commitment not to interfere with unionization efforts.

SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania President Matt Yarnell said that Guardian and Priority have yet to provide critical information they had previously been asked for regarding staffing agencies. Guardian, however, told McKnight’s it provided data on agency hours worked to the SEIU president on August 8.     

Attempts to reach the other two named companies were unsuccessful Friday and over the weekend. A recorded message at Priority Healthcare Group directed calls to an extension that dropped repeated calls. Attempts to get in contact with Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services, which was named in state and federal indictments on unrelated matters Tuesday, were also unsuccessful.

Mixed signals

Prior to Friday’s press conference, it appeared that unions and nursing home owners had come closer together on major issues in the state.

In what was dubbed a “historic budget victory,” the state Legislature passed a 2022-2023 spending plan that includes a Medicaid raise of $35 per resident per day for nursing homes — the first increase in nearly 10 years.

“We were proud to play an important role in Pennsylvania’s state budget process this year, along with SEIU and the workers’ unions, which ultimately yielded critical, much-needed investments in state funding,” Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, told McKnight’s Friday. “These investments can certainly help correct the longstanding challenges faced by providers, workers and the residents they serve.”

Just last month, leaders from PHCA, LeadingAge PA and the SEIU participated in a joint press conference to announce passage of the funding bill, along with Gov. Tom Wolf (D), Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R) and other state legislators to praise $600 million in funding and reforms. 

“But those come with accountability,” Yarnell said during Friday’s Zoom call. “Seventy percent of the funding must go to bedside care funds. Public dollars must go to staffing and care nursing home chains are not doing right by workers, residents, families, and taxpayers.”

The union, representing more than 2,500 workers, said homes now refuse to provide detailed information about staffing and agency work and negotiate in good faith.

State Representative Elizabeth Seedler (D), one of the strongest supporters of the historic $600 million funding plan, announced her strong support for the union’s efforts.

“The largest providers throughout the state have refused to offer meaningful wage and staffing increases in contract negotiations,” she said during Friday’s Zoom call, “especially when this money is intended for workers and for care.”

Asked whether SEIU’s current actions are a signal that relations between the union and had soured,  PHCA spokesman Eric Heisler told McKnight’s he thought there were a number of “misunderstandings about the accountability agreements made between providers, the union and lawmakers to secure the Medicaid increase” during Friday’s call. He added that he expects that the new funding won’t be distributed to providers for several months.

“We are hopeful providers and workers can come together in collective bargaining to achieve the same success, which will ultimately benefit our most vulnerable residents,” added Shamberg. “With this new funding, our industry will attempt to combat nearly a decade of flat funding in Pennsylvania, a dire workforce crisis, and dozens of sales, changes of ownership, and closures of nursing homes.”

Union members at the 39 homes will hold potential strike votes in the coming weeks and be prepared to send notices to employers 10 days before any strike, as mandated by law, SEIU leaders said. Another 38 facilities will have contracts expiring this fall, they added.