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As Union Contract Negotiations Stall, Staffing Levels At Ithaca Nursing Home Suffer

Nursing home picket_web

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — Union workers at a nursing home near Ithaca were on the picket line for the second time this year. Negotiations on an updated union contract at the Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are at a standstill, which has made it difficult for the facility to address the ongoing labor shortage.

Workers at the nursing home have been represented by a union for years, so the contract negotiation process is a familiar one for the many longtime workers on Wednesday's picket line.

But last March, their collective bargaining contract expired and talks were put on hold due to the pandemic. As a result, the staff, who are represented by 1199 SEIU, have been working through the pandemic without a contract. Negotiations have resumed but both workers and management said they feel like they have reached a stalemate.

Long time licensed practical nurse, Lolita McComb said it has been stressful not having a union contract, especially with all the additional risks associated with her job.

"It's kind of scary when you're not working with a contract," McComb said.

McComb said that the prolonged discussions haven't just had a toll on workers, but on the residents of the nursing home too, as the negotiations have put a damper on hiring efforts. The increasingly competitive labor market in the healthcare industry has not helped either, with everyone from county health departments to home health agencies desperate for health workers.

"Nobody wants to walk in this building and apply for a job when they don't know if we're going to go on strike," McComb said. "We've got to get this over with and start getting some staff back in this building."

McComb came to work early to support her picketing coworkers. But when she clocks into her night shift at 3:00 p.m, she said it is likely she will be the only nurse, on a floor with 41 patients.

Acting administrator Austen Holochak represents the facility's management and its New York City based owners in the negotiation. He said that he is also ready for negotiations to be over.

"We hear them, we would like to get this done and move on and continue to attract new employees," Holochak said.

This is not the first time the workers have been on the picket line this year. There was another rally in September, but Holochak and organizers agree there has not been much progress since then. 

Some of the biggest sticking points have been benefits like health insurance, pension plans and regular pay raise schedules. Some workers, like nursing staff, were given a $4 raise in an effort to boost retention. Others, like those who work in food service, did not see that raise.

Longtime custodian Johnny Wright said some of his coworkers are still making minimum wage — $12.50 an hour — which he said is just not competitive in today's labor market.

"We have to have wages above [what chain retailers and fast food restaurants offer]," Wright said. "Because we're dealing with people's lives here on a daily basis."

Wright and McComb have both been working at Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for over 25 years. Two of McComb's relatives are patients here. 

"I've never chose to go anywhere else and work," McComb said. "I've always been very faithful to this place through thick and thin."

Wright and McComb both said that they would not leave their jobs at Cayuga, even if it meant they would make more elsewhere. But, they said, their younger colleagues might not feel the same.

After talks stalled yesterday, a mediator from the National Labor Relations Board will be involved in the case. Union organizers and Holochak both said they expect a mediator will help. But if there is still no progress, organizers said they plan to hold a vote to authorize a strike.