ITHACA, N.Y.—Unionized workers at Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center have voted to authorize a one day strike if they are not met with a “fair quality contract” in the next round of negotiations with the nursing home’s administration.

It’s the latest escalation in what has been a fraught negotiation process between 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Cayuga Nursing’s administration, and figures into a national wave of organized labor fighting for changes in their working conditions

Workers at Cayuga Nursing have consistently complained about pay that is not locally competitive; short staffing; that the quality of care available to residents is jeopardized; and have been afraid that the administration is attempting to reduce their benefits in exchange for paltry wage increases

Much of their ire has been directed at the owners of the Cayuga Nursing facility, Shalom “Shully” and Barry Braunstein, who have been described as “downstate owners” by workers and 1199SEIU who are only willing to make “concessionary proposals to dedicated caregivers.”

Negotiations began in March of 2021, and the contract for union workers at Cayuga Nursing’s lapsed in May. A federal mediator will sit in on the next round of negotiations between the union and Cayuga Nursing administration on Nov. 29 and 30. 1199SEIU announced the strike authorization on Thursday. 

If both parties can’t come to at least a tentative agreement by the end of these meetings, then healthcare workers will issue their employer a 10-day strike notice.

Emmanuel “Manny” White, an organizer with 1199SEIU, has represented the workers at Cayuga Nursing throughout the negotiation process with the facility’s administration.  White has described the conduct of administration as being disrespectful. He said that workers are only being offered a reduction in benefits in exchange for “mediocre wage increases.” 

“This employer has just come to the table wanting to cut things that we believe will attract new staff and new employees,” said White. “So that they’re not working as short staffed that they have been through the pandemic, and before the pandemic.”

Austen Holochack, acting administrator at Cayuga Nursing, provided The Ithaca Voice with a response via email to the looming strike at the facility and the ongoing contract negotiations. He wrote that the union’s claims are “false and inflammatory in an effort to undermine the negotiation process.”

Holochak wrote that “Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation maintains it is proposing wages at or above all of the other nursing homes in the area and these proposals are not contingent upon a “reduction of benefits.””

Having previously verified with The Ithaca Voice that Cayuga Nursing has faced issues with “recruitment and retention of staff,” Holochak has maintained that, “we do not accept more residents than the staff can safely care for.”

Selena Krone, a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), working at Cayuga Nursing said that staff is “spread thin and burned out,” and stressed that the quality of care workers can provide is at risk.

“People are tired of working short staffed and not getting adequate pay,” said Krone. She added, “We can’t recruit new people if they’re not willing to pay quality money and have good health insurance.” 

Krone said of the Cayuga Nursing facility: “That’s the residents’ home, and they deserve to have quality care, and people in there that care. We can’t hire good quality people if the wages are not where they’re supposed to be.” 

“So am I for the strike? I am for the strike because I care about the residents.”

In a press release, 1199SEIU wrote that more than 70 workers voted to authorize a strike at Cayuga Nursing. Workers at the facility represented by 1199SEIU include custodial and ancillary staff positions as well as healthcare professionals. Holocak wrote to The Voice that  “The total number of union members at the facility is 45, and only approximately 29  members were at the facility when the vote was held.” Holochak declined to make specific staffing numbers available because the “situation is fluid.”

When this statement was raised to White in an interview, he said, “That’s a telltale sign that this facility has cut staffing while turning a profit.” When pressed to answer whether or not there were over 70 union members that voted to authorize the strike, White said, “So what I will say to that is that we have the majority of members who supported the strike.”

In emails to The Voice, Holochak has referred to a “framework of accountability” that Cayuga Nursing is seeking to incorporate into a contract with 1199SEIU. Holochak declined to provide more specific details on what that framework would entail, but wrote that it is Cayuga Nursing’s “priority to offer staff competitive wages in exchange for accountability in order to attract the best talent and deliver the best care.”

White characterized this “framework of accountability” as an effort to reduce benefits for workers at 1199SEIU.

White said that he is hopeful that the involvement of a mediator will result in a fair agreement between the union and Cayuga Nursing’s administration. Holochak wrote that Cayuga Nursing administration plans to meet with the union and mediator on Nov. 29 and 30.

Jimmy Jordan

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