“This Strike Is a Fight for Our Lives”: Healthcare Workers Are Walking Off the Job to Demand Pandemic Protections
In Chicago and across the country, a wave of strikes by nursing home aides and other healthcare workers is showing that collective action is necessary for survival.
UPDATE: On December 4, SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana reached a tentative contract agreement with Infinity Health Care, bringing the 12-day strike at 11 nursing homes to an end. The workers won a 3-year contract that includes a minimum $1 per hour raise for all staff. The union says the average raise will be $2 an hour, bumping the average hourly wage at Infinity nursing homes up from $13.65 to $15.68. The workers also won $2.50 an hour in hazard pay, five additional sick days, and stronger guarantees on the provision of proper PPE.
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.”
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.