ITHACA,N.Y.— A long and arduous contract negotiation between Cayuga Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East has reached an end.

On May 20, workers at Cayuga Nursing & Rehabilitation Center voted to accept a three year contract that raised the starting wages of workers at the facility, preserved healthcare and pension benefits, and added built in wage increases. 

More than a year of negotiations

Negotiations dragged on for more than a year, starting in March of 2021 — a time that was incredibly difficult for all involved, as the country and healthcare industry marked the first year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Short staffing created an intense strain on workers at the facility. A core tenant of Cayuga Nursing workers’ public arguments was that raising wages and retaining benefits — which they also claimed administration wanted to do away with —  was necessary in order to attract new talent to the facility. It’s an issue that had the full attention of Cayuga Nursing’s Acting Administrator Austen Holochak, but he and union organizers only seemed to be butting heads during negotiations, both sides citing poor conduct on the other in 2021.

Throughout the Fall of 2021, workers at Cayuga Nursing rallied several times, and threatened to strike if the conduct of the negotiations didn’t improve with Cayuga Nursing’s administration. Workers and union organizers depicted the nursing home’s administration as being uncompromising and attempting to “dismantle” the entire collective bargaining agreement between 1199SEIU and Cayuga Nursing — a point 1199SEIU still sticks to.

1199SEIU Organizer, Emmanuel “Manny” White, previously described to The Ithaca Voice that the administration was routinely bringing forward unfair proposals, which he described as continuously “disrespectful.”

Holochak had described 1199SEIU’s negotiation tactics as “false and inflammatory,” such as inflating the number of unionized workers at the facility. 1199SEIU has claimed that there are over 70 union members at the facility, and has never issued a correction if otherwise. Holochak once claimed that there are 45 union workers there

A federal mediator became a part of the contract negotiations in late November, and worked for the last six months with the respective parties until the contract was reached. Both sides were recommended to stop speaking with the media around this time. 

In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, Holochak said that the mediator was very fair in helping both parties reach an agreement. Now that the hair-pulling and mud slinging has subsided, and a contract has been reached, Holochak is hoping that the image created for the facility can be remolded.

“We’re hoping that this really gets out there to the community and the surrounding community, and we start to get quality staff, and really just be the premier facility that we know we should and can be,” said Holochak.

“This is more so a win for everybody,” he later added.

What’s in the contract

Included in the bargaining unit of workers at Cayuga Nursing’s are the positions of ancillary staff — like janitors, cooks, and dietary aids —  Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA), Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN), and Registered Nurses (RN).

In the Fall of 2021, some rallying workers shared their wages with The Ithaca Voice. Ancillary staff said they were being paid $12.50/hr; CNA’s close to $17/hr; and RNs being paid $22.50/hr.

1199SEIU shared that Dietary Aides are now starting at $17.00/hr; Cooks at $21.00/hr; CNAs at $22.00/hr; LPNs $30.00/hr; and RNs $30.50.

The contract guarantees that the same healthcare benefits remain for the unionized workers as before, and institute increases into the worker’s pension fund by Cayuga Nursing. The number of holidays with increased pay was also bumped up from 6 to 9. 

The facility has had a mix of workers filling the shoes of both CNA and ancillary staff. SEIU1199 said that the contract guarantees that these workers will receive CNA level wages no matter what role they are working in.

Across the board wage increases were negotiated, with a 2.5% bump for 2022, 2.5% for 2023, and 2.75% for 2024.

1199SEIU was unable to fulfill several requests from The Voice for interviews with union organizers or workers.

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)

1199SEIU released a statement from Nicole Murray, a CNA and Bargaining Committee Member.

“After a long struggle of back and forths we are happy to finally have agreed on a new union contract. […] The new contract is a good start in a longer process to achieve well-deserved wage increases for every staff member.  Cayuga Ridge healthcare workers stuck together during this fight and we will continue to be united moving forward,” stated Murray.

Flash points in negotiations

Holochak explained that one of the union’s major hang ups in the negotiation process was around the removal of certain job positions from the collective bargaining agreement. He cited positions like “Assistant Cook” that would have previously been represented by the union, though he said it has not been filled for years. 

“There’s positions in [the contract] for an Assistant Cook, where we only have Cooks,” said Holochak.

If the facility was larger, Holochak said that it might make sense to fill positions like Assistant Cook, or Assistant Housekeeping Supervisor — but not for the size that Cayuga Nursing is, or can be. Holochak said that removing assistant positions from the collective bargaining agreement was not to later hire workers outside of the protections of the union contract. 

“That is definitely not the purpose,” he said.

According to him, Cayuga Nursing was at one time a 200 bed facility, but now just has just over 140 beds filled. “With our staffing challenges, we only have three wings of our four wings facility open,” he said. Holochak said that, in his view, a 260 bed facility would warrant hiring for the type of assistant positions that were eliminated from the collective bargaining agreement. 

“It was just a difficult process of eliminating positions that we feel we will never have again,” he said.

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