ITHACA, N.Y.—Negotiations between Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center’s administration and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East are dragging on. Both sides began meeting at the bargaining table in March, and the current union contract expired in May.

The mood among union workers: frustrated, fed-up, and indignant. They’re complain of short staffing, proposals for uncompetitive wages, and a management that wants to see their benefits taken away. If management’s position doesn’t move toward what workers are calling “fair contract terms,” they’ll be considering a vote on a one day strike.

“I think they’re trying to discourage these workers.”

1199SEIU Union Organizer Emmanuel White said that Cayuga Nursing’s administration is only willing to raise pay for their workers if they can slash “vital benefits.”

White said, “Management is proposing takeaways to benefits that these employees have gained over the years…health insurance, pension, vacation time, all in exchange for a mediocre wage increase.”

“I think they’re trying to discourage these workers,” White said.

He said that workers are at their wit’s end with administration and that, “if we don’t get this contract, we’re going to be voting on a one day strike.”

Workers at the rally described their coworkers and the residents they take care of as “family.” One worker even called Cayuga Nursing a “home away from home,” if not a dysfunctional one.

White said these healthcare workers care deeply about the residents at Cayuga Nursing and that striking would be painful, but that they are being pushed to seriously consider it. 

“These workers need to provide for their families basic living needs too,” said White. “They need to be able to come in here, and not have to worry about their own health. Or if they get sick, having to pay out of pocket costs that would be detrimental to their household.”

Union organizer, Emmanuel White, from 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East leads a rally outside of the Cayuga Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center on Sept. 14. (Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice) Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Responding to a request for comment from The Ithaca Voice, Cayuga Nursing Acting Administrator Austen Holochak said that White’s comments about the position Cayuga Nursing has taken at the negotiation table is “false and inflammatory in an effort to undermine the negotiating process.”

Holochak said that he believes that Cayuga Nursing is “proposing wages above all of the other nursing homes in the area.” In return for these wages, Holochak said, “all that we ask for is that the staff be accountable to their commitments, show up to work and do their jobs to the best of their ability.”

At the bargaining table, Holochak said that Cayuga Nursing is asking for a “framework of accountability” for staff, which apparently White has refused to agree to.

Cayuga Nursing did not provide more information on what that framework of accountability may entail, with Holochak saying that, “According to the union’s own ground rules, discussions that occur during bargaining are not supposed to be disclosed to the public.  For this reason, we do not believe it would be appropriate or productive to continue to respond to the union’s baseless claims in the media.”

Holochak did not address the issue of whether Cayuga Nursing is trying to slash the benefits of its unionized workers or not.

What workers are saying

At the last rally at Cayuga Nursing, Jestina Quigee stood with her co-workers demanding management to renew the union’s contract with “fair terms.” That was on Sept. 14. She was hesitant to speak to the press then. Now she feels like she has to.

Jestina Quigee, a registered nurse and member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East at Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, feels like she has to speak out about working conditions at the nursing home. She stands in front of the Cayuga Nursing’s entrance during a rally on Oct. 27. (Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice)

“I thought the administration would really see that we are serious and sign our union contract. They don’t want to sign, they don’t want to give us wage increases, they don’t want to give us help,” said Quigee.

Quigee is the last Registered Nurse (RN)—a supervisor position at the nursing home—remaining in the union at Cayuga Nursing. At a rally on Oct. 27, Quigee repeated the same complaints her and her coworkers voiced in September They say staffing numbers are low; workers are overwhelmed; that pay is not competitive; the quality of care they can provide to residents is jeopardized; and that they are fearful management is trying to take their benefits away.

Unionized workers at Cayuga Nursing include kitchen, housekeeping, and custodial staff in addition to the nursing staff.  Every person The Ithaca Voice spoke with that worked in an ancillary department said that their pay is set by New York’s minimum wage, currently $12.50 an hour. The Living Wage in Tompkins County is currently $15.32 an hour, or $14.32 an hour if health insurance is completely paid for by an employer. The wage is calculated every two years by Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and is supposed to be enough for someone to “live frugally,” while also having enough for recreation and building a savings.

Many in the nursing staff received raises outside of their contracts at the start of the pandemic, such as Nicole Murray, who works as Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at Cayuga Nursing. She said that before COVID, she was making “13-something an hour” and now she’s making close to $17 an hour.

All the workers that The Ithaca Voice spoke with attributed the bump in pay for the nursing staff as an effort to prevent an exodus of healthcare workers from Cayuga Nursing as the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic swallowed life, and also to allow management to continue to hire on.

Nicole Murray is a certified nursing assistant at Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and a member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. She said that she’s fighting for competitive pay and benefits for her and her coworkers. Behind her is a rally that took place outside Cayuga Nursing on Oct. 27. (Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice)

Nursing staff told The Voice that in years past, when staffing was adequate, each floor would be staffed by two RNs or licensed practical nurses (LPN), who would be working with four — sometimes three—CNAs. These workers would take care of halls of 39 residents.

Now workers say that the teams working on residents halls have been reduced to one RN or LPN, and two—sometimes one—CNA.

Holochak said that, “We do not accept more residents than the staff can safely care for.”

Cayuga Nursing is getting some new employees, but they were not willing to provide staffing numbers. Holochak said, “ We cannot provide specific numbers regarding staffing because the situation is fluid. We do our best to attract responsible and capable staff that will help provide exemplary care.”  

White and organizers said that management has avoided telling new hires that there is a union at Cayuga Nursing, and they are instead sourcing new employees through healthcare professional agencies. Agency workers get short term contracts with above market wages but no benefits. Agency LPNs can see wages ranging up to $40 an hour, and agency CNAs can see wages of over $20 an hour.

Quigee said that she missed out on the round of raises that came to the nursing staff outside of their contracts. She had been in Africa during the pandemic when the raises were distributed at Cayuga Nursing, and upon returning was not offered a bump in her pay. 

“I would call this discrimination,” said Quigee.

Quigee said that unionized LPNs—which are a position that requires less training and a less intense certification—are getting paid above her now. She said she is making $22.50, a wage far below the national average of $38.47 for RNs.

Until recently, Quigee said she was the only Black nurse working at Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“I’m a minority worker…I don’t want to leave the union. For protection,” Quigee said. “Discrimination is all over, believe it or not. It’s here too. I didn’t want to be on the record, but I guess I have to speak about discrimination. I can’t shy away from it.”

Quigee said that she isn’t willing to negotiate a wage increase outside of her contract now, or leave the union to see her wage increase. She said that she hasn’t been directly asked to do so, but feels an implicit pressure to. Many other workers at the rally echoed this sentiment in conversations with The Voice.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn