UNION CITY -- Around 15 employees of Union City's Manhattanview Health Care Center wore purple shirts with “99%” emblazoned in yellow on the front and walked back and forth to the beat of a metal bucket dented almost in half with a spoon before hurrying off at ten minutes to three to make their evening shift on time. Another 15 employees then took over, many after completing their morning shifts.
They came to continue the non-strike picket in protest of the fact that all of them, many whom have worked at the nursing home for over ten years, are in danger of losing their health insurance if they do not renew their union contract that has been under negotiation for over a year.
The workers who man the front lines of the operation – from housekeeping to nursing to linens to recreation – are all part of the New Jersey Union 1199 SEIU of United Healthcare Workers East. The irony of the possible loss of health insurance, union Communications Coordinator James Canonge explained, is that these workers, whose very business is health and wellbeing, are at risk of losing their own.
Mayor and state Senator Brian Stack had planned to join the picketers Wednesday afternoon, but was unable due to scheduling conflicts.
“I support them one hundred percent,” Stack said in a phone call. “They deserve decent wages. These are people who work extremely hard taking care of people at various stages of their lives when they most need it in the nursing home.”
Employee and housekeeper Maria Valdez joined in on the chant, “Be fair to those who care,” and explained that it was an issue of morality that those who support others should work without proper support themselves.
“We need benefits, which is why we're fighting,” she said in Spanish. “And at the very least, we need a contract. It makes us feel like immigrants without papers.”
Manhattanview has 85 total employees who provide 142 residents with long-term care. Their contract expired on June 15, 2011, and they've held six collective bargaining sessions since May of 2011 with Broadway Healthcare Management who oversees the Union City location and two additional nursing homes in Perth Amboy and Teaneck.
“Workers have come to the table to negotiate, and all management has done is take,” Canonge said. “The population is growing older, and demand for this work is increasing. The goal is to raise public awareness of the increasing plight of the health care crisis in the nation, as well as for those who care for the health of others.”
The only offer management has made thus far, he continued, was to drop new hires' hourly wage from the current rate of $9 per hour. Most longer-term employees make between $10 and $11.
“I think the owners of the nursing home have not treated them fairly in any respect in work environment, in benefits, and across the board, and I think they deserve much better,” Stack added. “They have my support and anything I can do to help them I will.” -- Gennarose Pope