Assisted Living Facility Staffer Says He Was Fired for Organizing His Coworkers During the Pandemic

Hamilton Nolan June 16, 2020

(The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In March of this year, Schuyler Stall­cup was work­ing as an activ­i­ties assis­tant” at an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty in Lin­coln Park, Chica­go, owned by Sun­rise Senior Liv­ing. For the past year and a half, he had spent his days plan­ning and lead­ing recre­ation­al activ­i­ties for the elder­ly res­i­dents, work­ing to keep them enter­tained and engaged. When the coro­n­avirus cri­sis hit, he decid­ed that it was time to start orga­niz­ing his cowork­ers. That’s when the trou­ble began.

By the mid­dle of May, Stall­cup was fired. He says that his employ­er fired him on a flim­sy pre­text, as retal­i­a­tion for work­place orga­niz­ing that start­ed with a sin­gle peti­tion, and grew into a union cam­paign. He has filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board seek­ing to be rein­stat­ed. His is a dis­turb­ing sto­ry that illus­trates the dif­fi­cul­ties of try­ing to improve work­places from the inside in the midst of a health cri­sis that has every­one on edge.

Sun­rise Senior Liv­ing is a nation­al chain of more than 300 assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ties, employ­ing thou­sands of non-union work­ers. Anti-union mate­r­i­al is a stan­dard part of employ­ee train­ing. Stall­cup was mak­ing $15 an hour in March, watch­ing with dread as Covid struck. Staffing lev­els began drop­ping as employ­ees called in sick, or were forced to stay home to take care of their chil­dren. Fam­i­ly vis­its for res­i­dents were put on hold, which meant that the remain­ing Sun­rise staffers, already over­worked, were forced to spend more time inter­act­ing with res­i­dents to keep them from becom­ing iso­lat­ed and agi­tat­ed. On top of that, masks were in short sup­ply — Stall­cup said it was not until mid-April when Sun­rise was able to issue fresh masks to every­one for their shift each day.

On March 17, Stall­cup sub­mit­ted a peti­tion to his man­ag­er, signed by about 30 cowork­ers — rough­ly half of the total front­line staff. It called for two weeks of addi­tion­al paid sick leave, increased staffing, a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed plan” for how to stop Covid from spread­ing in the facil­i­ty, and child­care sub­si­dies and free meals for employ­ees. Of these demands, the com­pa­ny only end­ed up grant­i­ng free meals. Each free meal saved employ­ees three dollars.

In a sworn affi­davit filed with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, Stall­cup says that his super­vi­sor warned him that he shouldn’t have cir­cu­lat­ed the peti­tion, and then sent him back to work. But he could see that the issues he had raised were not being addressed. There was so much fear and uncer­tain­ty,” he said. We would have days when all the care­givers [who pro­vide direct patient care] would call out and there would be no one there. Those of us in activ­i­ties would be doing those tasks.”

By ear­ly April, Stall­cup decid­ed that Sun­rise need­ed a union. He began talk­ing to cowork­ers, dur­ing breaks, after work, and on social media. On April 7, he says, he began post­ing union fliers and infor­ma­tion­al mate­r­i­al in the break room, and quick­ly gar­nered 15 to 20 ver­bal com­mit­ments of inter­est. Only a few days lat­er, though, two cowork­ers who had been enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of the idea began to say they want­ed noth­ing to do with it. The chill of fear had begun to creep in to the nascent campaign.

In the first week of May, man­age­ment came for Stallcup’s job. They accused him of dis­abling an alarm con­nect­ed to a door lead­ing to a sec­ond-floor patio area, where staff took res­i­dents out­side to get fresh air. I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized it was retal­ia­to­ry,” Stall­cup said. Not only does he say he didn’t do it dur­ing the shift in ques­tion, but also that turn­ing off the alarm was a com­mon and approved prac­tice” for the entire pre­vi­ous sum­mer, because for­get­ful res­i­dents tend­ed to acci­den­tal­ly set off the loud alarm, star­tling many oth­er res­i­dents. He was also accused of leav­ing res­i­dents unat­tend­ed” — a charge, he says in his writ­ten state­ment to the NLRB, that is a par­tic­u­lar­ly and obvi­ous­ly friv­o­lous alle­ga­tion as Sun­rise is an assist­ed-liv­ing com­mu­ni­ty mean­ing res­i­dents are left unat­tend­ed con­stant­ly and the staffing lev­els make it math­e­mat­i­cal­ly and func­tion­al­ly impos­si­ble for res­i­dents to nev­er be unattended.”

Nev­er­the­less, fol­low­ing an inter­nal inves­ti­ga­tion” by man­age­ment, Stall­cup was fired in mid-May. He believes it was direct retal­i­a­tion for his peti­tion and union orga­niz­ing. (“They were always on the ball for union bust­ing,” he said rue­ful­ly. Not so much for a pandemic.”)

Asked about Stallcup’s alle­ga­tions about Sun­rise and the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his fir­ing, a Sun­rise Senior Liv­ing spokesper­son sent the fol­low­ing state­ment: We do not com­ment on lit­i­ga­tion mat­ters or issues relat­ed to for­mer team mem­bers. Sun­rise is proud of its long­stand­ing Open Door Pol­i­cy, which demon­strates the Company’s com­mit­ment to hear, lis­ten to, and sup­port team mem­bers to be suc­cess­ful at Sun­rise. More­over, Sun­rise of Lin­coln Park has had a suf­fi­cient sup­ply of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) con­sis­tent­ly over the past sev­er­al months and has been care­ful­ly fol­low­ing applic­a­ble guid­ance from the local depart­ment of health, CDC, and oth­er gov­ern­ment author­i­ties. Team mem­bers have been trained and retrained regard­ing appro­pri­ate use of PPE includ­ing masks, googles, gowns, gloves and face shields.”

Anoth­er cur­rent employ­ee at Sun­rise, who asked to remain anony­mous out of fear of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment, cor­rob­o­rat­ed much of Stallcup’s sto­ry. The employ­ee said that in the ear­ly days of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, work­ers were giv­en a sin­gle mask in a paper bag with their name on it, which they reused each day at work. After Stall­cup began his orga­niz­ing cam­paign, the employ­ee said, it became appar­ent that peo­ple were very scared” — fear­ing that they might lose their jobs if man­age­ment came to know that they were asso­ci­at­ed with the union effort.

And in fact, it seems that Stallcup’s fir­ing has suc­cess­ful­ly caused the orga­niz­ing at the Lin­coln Park Sun­rise facil­i­ty to grind to halt. Stall­cup him­self spoke to an attor­ney and to union orga­niz­ers after he was fired, and is hop­ing to be rein­stat­ed after an NLRB rul­ing. But that process can be painful­ly slow. In the mean­time, he says, the remain­ing employ­ees have not con­tin­ued to pur­sue the union dri­ve after see­ing him lose his job.

The staffing issues that he asked the com­pa­ny to address in his peti­tion months ago still per­sist, accord­ing to the cur­rent Sun­rise employ­ee. Since Stall­cup left, his depart­ment is real­ly bare,” his for­mer cowork­er said. He was so good with the residents.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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