Hours Before Nursing Home Workers Strike, Governor Says Basic Agreement Has Been Met
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A strike by thousands of nursing home workers appears likely to be averted. Nearly 3,000 workers in Connecticut have threatened to walk off the job starting tomorrow. Now it seems at least some of their demands have been met. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Tanya Beckford has been a certified nursing assistant for 24 years, 20 of those years she spent on the Alzheimer's unit, feeding and bathing residents, helping them go to the bathroom, rushing from person to person to keep up. She's tired of being called a hero.
TANYA BECKFORD: People plaster it all over that we are essential workers and we are heroes, but you don't treat us that way.
HSU: After more than two decades on the job, she earns $19.58 an hour - before taxes, she adds.
BECKFORD: So I might just go to Walmart. I might just go to Burger King or be an Uber driver because I'm sure that they're making more than me that's hurting our bodies every day.
HSU: Certified nursing assistants make up about 40% of nursing home workers. They are at the bedside all day, every day, all through the pandemic. Some wore trash bags when gowns were scarce. They work some of the longest hours and are among the lowest paid workers in America. Their median hourly wage is just under $15 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
BECKFORD: I could see why no one wants to come and work and give this kind of care that nobody wants to do because it's too hard and it doesn't pay anything.
HSU: Two weeks ago, Beckford's union, District 1199 New England, called on the state to raise the pay of all nursing home workers to at least $20 an hour. Now, the state is not the employer here, but it does provide most of the funding for privately owned nursing homes through Medicaid. And the state has the power to increase wages. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, proposed a deal, a 4.5% pay raise in the first year and the same amount the year after. His budget chief, Melissa McCaw, said it reflected the state's commitment to care workers.
MELISSA MCCAW: The governor is providing four times the rate of increase that they would typically see. It's a historic level of investment.
HSU: The union rejected that proposal, saying it wasn't enough. But the parties returned to the bargaining table and emerged with some news. Here's Governor Lamont this afternoon.
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NED LAMONT: We have a basic agreement - a basic agreement - which is a four-year deal to put front and center our nurses who have been there at the nursing homes taking care of our seniors through thick and thin over the last 14 months.
HSU: He's talking about a workforce that is dominated by women and women of color. Many of them are immigrants. Historically, they have been undervalued. Robert Espinoza is with PHI, a research and policy group focused on the care workforce. He says the pandemic shined a spotlight on these workers. But now that people are vaccinated and resuming their old lives, he wonders if the attention will last.
ROBERT ESPINOZA: We need to keep asking, what can we do to make sure these essential workers can thrive in the long term and the next crisis? Because as millions of us age, that's a question we're going to need to be answering.
HSU: Gloria Plummer, a certified nursing assistant of 28 years, had been worried about going on strike, worried about how the temporary workers would treat her residents. Now, strike or no strike, her goal remains the same.
GLORIA PLUMMER: I want the respect. I want the dignity. I want to make sure that the job that we are doing is recognized.
HSU: After all, she says, everything is built on our backs.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
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