TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Workers at Cayuga Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center rallied on Sept. 14 to fight what they called unfair contract proposals that would make cuts to their healthcare, pension and overtime benefits—cuts that could make positions at the nursing home less competitive, fueling fears that they would exacerbate existing staffing issues.

The nursing home workers are represented by 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Union Organizer Emmanuel White led the rally of about 40 people, which took place outside of the nursing home.

He said Cayuga Nursing Home has been running on short staff since before the pandemic, “and short staffing issues continue to get worse. We are asking for a fair quality contract, and to not force our senior employees to have to look for employment at other facilities, or elsewhere.”

Workers have been working without a contract since May, according to White.

Darrell Pokorney is a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) at Cayuga Nursing Home and is negotiating a contract on behalf of the other workers. He’s been working at the facility on and off for almost 20 years, and said that when he first started, “Me and another nurse would do a unit of 40 people with four aids and we’d be really grouchy if we had three.” Now, at Cayuga Nursing Home, Pokorney said that one nurse works with one aid for a unit of 40 people. 

Healthcare workers are also supposedly filling in where there are shortages in the ancillary staff at the facility, cleaning and keeping house when needed.

“The ancillary staff — the housekeeping, the dietary workers — have started to seek employment at other places that provide a decent living wage and benefits, leaving those departments very short,” said White. “Those workers are feeling disrespected by management, and need to be able to provide for their families.”

One long-time custodian at Cayuga Nursing Home said he originally applied to the facility over 20 years ago because they offered a pension and healthcare benefits, and competitive wages. 

The custodian, who preferred not to be named, said he makes $12.50 an hour, and feels trapped trying to choose between their current benefits and seeking out a job that will pay a living wage, which is $15.32 an hour in Tompkins County. 

The custodian shared that Cayuga Nursing Home offered them and other employees a raise in exchange for leaving the union and dropping their benefits, but that the raise would be nowhere near enough to cover the value lost from their pension and healthcare. “Basically what would happen is you’d end up paying for your own wage increase,” the custodian said.

Center staff positions at the nursing home, like Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA), are supposedly picking up the majority of the slack left by the understaffed ancillary departments. 

Center staff positions make between minimum wage and 18 dollars an hour and haven’t received raises throughout the pandemic, while LPNs and Registered Nurses (RN) have, according to Pokorney. Union member CNA’s have close to a competitive package in Pokorney’s view, but he said he can’t see why an aid would work for Cayuga Nursing Home under the stress of a short staff and if they were to lose their benefits. 

Workers from Cayuga Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center rally outside the facility on Sept. 14. (Jimmy Jordan/The Ithaca Voice)

“If there’s an aid taking care of someone — who’s professionally licensed in New York State — and they can make more at Dunkin’ Donuts, then why wouldn’t they choose to have less liability?”

Healthcare providers must follow legal and ethical standards in the course of performing their duties or become subject to civil and criminal penalties, such as for negligence while caring for a patient. 

“The worst thing you do at a donut shop is spill coffee on someone,” said Pokorney. “More money with less liability. It’s a no-brainer.”

Part and parcel to the challenges of working with a thin staff is the quality of care that residents of the nursing home and rehabilitation center are subject to. 

Harreit Malinowitz is an Ithaca area resident and attended last week’s rally to support the workers that took care of her uncle who spent the last years of his life in Cayuga Nursing Home’s dementia ward. 

Whenever she visited her uncle, Malinowitz said she could see that the nursing home’s staff was “frazzled and spread thin,” but felt that the workers always provided great care to him despite the conditions she saw them working under.

“I feel like these are the most essential workers around,” said Malinowitz. “If these workers are considered expendable and exploitable, then what that really means is that the people they take care of are expendable and exploitable.”

At the rally, Cayuga Nursing Home workers were shown support by appearances from UAW Local 2300 President LeVon Brewer and Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella. Assemblymember Anna Kelles also gave her support to ralliers, although she was not able to attend.

Regarding the concerns of workers at the facility, Cayuga Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center administration provided a statement to the Ithaca Voice via email. This is it in its entirety:

Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation is committed to being a state of the art facility and premier workplace that delivers excellent care for the residents it serves. To that end, Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation continues to advocate its priority to offer staff competitive wages in exchange for accountability in order to attract the best talent and deliver the best care. Like most health care facilities across upstate New York, recruitment and retention of staff is a challenge for the facility which will be further exacerbated by the New York State health care vaccine mandate. Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation agrees the current contract is not adequate to meet the needs and goals of the future and remains committed to negotiating a contract that best serves the union members and the facility.”

Workers said they plan to be back at the bargaining table on Sept. 29.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com