“This Strike Is a Fight for Our Lives”: Healthcare Workers Are Walking Off the Job to Demand Pandemic Protections

As a strike wave sweeps the U.S. health­care indus­try amid the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, 700 front­line work­ers at 11 Chica­go-area nurs­ing homes have been on the pick­et lines since Novem­ber 23. 

Pri­mar­i­ly Black and Lati­na women, the strik­ing work­ers are mem­bers of SEIU Health­care Illi­nois & Indi­ana and include cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tants (CNAs), dietary aides, house­keep­ers and laun­dry work­ers. They are fight­ing for at least $15 an hour, haz­ard pay and ade­quate per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE).

Their employ­er, Infin­i­ty Health­care Man­age­ment?—?a for-prof­it chain oper­at­ing sev­er­al nurs­ing homes across Illi­nois and four oth­er states?—?recent­ly received $12.7 mil­lion in fed­er­al Covid-19 relief, but has so far refused to meet the work­ers’ demands after near­ly six months of con­tract negotiations. 

The strike is coin­cid­ing with oth­er health­care-relat­ed work stop­pages around the coun­try, sig­nal­ing grow­ing work­er unrest as the twin pub­lic health and eco­nom­ic crises con­tin­ue to wreak hav­oc on work­ing-class Amer­i­cans?—?par­tic­u­lar­ly Black and Brown communities.

In New York, over 1,000 nurs­es with the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (NYS­NA) held a one-day strike at Albany Med­ical Cen­ter Hos­pi­tal on Decem­ber 1, while 200 oth­er NYS­NA nurs­es at Mon­te­fiore Hos­pi­tal in New Rochelle orga­nized a two-day strike on Decem­ber 1 and 2. At both loca­tions, nurs­es are demand­ing improved safe­ty pre­cau­tions and bet­ter pay.

Mean­while, in Wash­ing­ton state, over 100 doc­tors, physi­cian assis­tants and nurse prac­ti­tion­ers with the Union of Amer­i­can Physi­cians and Den­tists staged a two-day strike last week at 20 urgent care facil­i­ties run by Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems after being forced to work 12-hour shifts with­out breaks.

The strik­ing SEIU work­ers at the 11 Infin­i­ty-run nurs­ing homes in Chica­go and sur­round­ing sub­urbs plan to stay out indef­i­nite­ly until a con­tract set­tle­ment is reached.

Long-term care facil­i­ties have been at the epi­cen­ter of the pan­dem­ic in the Unit­ed States, account­ing for an esti­mat­ed 40 per­cent of coro­n­avirus deaths in the coun­try. In Illi­nois, a stag­ger­ing 52.1 per­cent of all Covid-19 deaths have been tied to nurs­ing homes. 

The Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties have seen some of the high­est Covid infec­tion and death rates in the state. At Infinity’s City View Mul­ti­Care Cen­ter in Cicero, there have been 249 cas­es, while the company’s Niles Nurs­ing and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion facil­i­ty has had 54 deaths. In May, City View under­went a court-ordered inspec­tion after the city of Cicero sued the facil­i­ty for fail­ing to abide by health guidelines.

“I’ve seen sev­er­al res­i­dents that I was very close to pass away because of lack of staffing,” a res­i­dent of an Infin­i­ty nurs­ing home said on a recent SEIU-host­ed livestream. The res­i­dent, who chose to remain anony­mous, said she has also wit­nessed the work­ers at her nurs­ing home get coro­n­avirus because they were giv­en inad­e­quate PPE.

“If I could phys­i­cal­ly take my [Social Secu­ri­ty] check out of the own­ers’ hands and put it in the arms of the CNAs, the nurs­es, I so would, because they deserve it,” the res­i­dent tear­ful­ly said.

Shan­to­nia Jack­son, a CNA at City View, told In These Times that one of her cowork­ers?—?a friend of hers who was set to retire in June after work­ing 24 years at the facil­i­ty?—?con­tract­ed the virus and passed away in March.

“This strike is a fight for our lives, and espe­cial­ly for our res­i­dents’ lives,” Jack­son explained. ?“The nurs­ing home indus­try is set up like a ware­house. Nobody wants to live in a ware­house. It’s their home, so it should be treat­ed as their home.”

A union stew­ard, Jack­son has worked at City View for five years and is respon­si­ble for as many as 70 res­i­dents per shift, but only makes $14.30 per hour. Some employ­ees at Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties make as lit­tle as $11.50 an hour despite being clas­si­fied as essen­tial workers.

“They call us heroes, but they don’t treat us like heroes,” she said, adding that the strike isn’t ?“just about a buck, it’s about the dig­ni­ty and respect of the work­ers that come every day” despite the risk of coronavirus.

The nurs­ing home work­ers have the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the com­mu­ni­ty. Sev­er­al social­ist and pro­gres­sive mem­bers of the Chica­go City Coun­cil, as well as activists and lead­ers from oth­er local unions, have joined them on the pick­et lines, while the work­ers’ strike fund has raised over $10,000 from pub­lic donations.

Illi­nois Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er has also come out in sup­port of the strik­ers. ?“Giv­en the sig­nif­i­cant fed­er­al and state finan­cial sup­port for nurs­ing homes dur­ing this pan­dem­ic, it’s impor­tant that work­ers see that fund­ing reflect­ed in their work­place, in their safe­ty and their pay,” Pritzk­er said.

“This is the first time I’ve been on strike,” said Jack­son. ?“It’s rough, but if you want some­thing and you believe in it, you got­ta do it. Now I know the pow­er of strik­ing, of hav­ing a union.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.

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