Detroit nursing home employees walk out over pay, working conditions

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mary Tucker stood near a fence line Monday outside the Hartford Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, detailing why she returned to her nursing home job after contracting COVID-19 and spending eight days in the hospital.

"When the doctor released me, I came right back into work," said Tucker, who was a certified nursing assistant at the facility. "Because I knew they needed my help."

On Monday, Tucker was one of dozens of nursing home workers in Detroit who participated in the national Strike for Black Lives to shine a light on conditions in the facilities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

SEIU Healthcare Michigan holds a rally, with some employees walking off the job for the event, in front of Hartford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Detroit.

The Service Employees International Union Healthcare Michigan helped organize the event, which featured workers walking off the job at six nursing homes in Detroit for one hour to two hours. The focus of the Strike for Black Lives nationally was to demand corporations and government "take action to confront systemic racism in our society and economy that is holding back Black and brown communities," according to a press release.

Andrea Acevedo, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, said a large percentage of the nursing home workers in Detroit are Black women.

Across Michigan, about 33% of the state's COVID-19 deaths have been suffered by nursing home residents or workers. While the wide majority of the nursing home deaths have been among residents, workers have voiced concerns about shortages in personal protective equipment and low staffing levels during the pandemic.

A Detroit News review earlier this month of hundreds of pages of nursing home inspections showed facilities rationed personal protective equipment, struggled to isolate residents and went without tests for the virus.

Acevedo said COVID-19 has unraveled layers of injustice.

Nursing home workers should make more than $15 an hour, she added. Michigan's minimum wage is $10.65 an hour, while the federal rate is $7.25.

"You can't call them a hero and then not treat them really like a hero," Acevedo said.

In a statement on the strikes, Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, which advocates on behalf of nursing homes, said the COVID-19 pandemic has presented "unprecedented challenges to the nursing facility profession."

Nursing facility providers were "doing everything possible to source adequate supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) for their staff during the initial weeks of the pandemic," Samuel added.

"HCAM continues to advocate that resources be directed to nursing facilities and their staff on the front lines — many of the same asks that SEIU is making. We welcome the opportunity to work with SEIU, the Legislature and Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer to secure these necessary resources.

"We must be prepared if COVID-19 surges continue or if a second wave hits Michigan. We are all in this together, and we all share the same goals of quality care while keeping staff and residents safe.”

Tucker, who permanently left her job at Hartford last week, said she was previously paid $14.30 an hour to sometimes care for about 27 residents during the facility's midnight shift.

Hartford Nursing & Rehabilitation Center has had 42 confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents and 20 among staff, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data.

Toyai Anderson of Detroit works in Hartford's "recovery unit" where individuals placed in isolation are cared for. Anderson said it wasn't divulged to her whether the residents she was working with had COVID-19.

Fifty plus protestors march to a Service Employees International Union Healthcare Michigan rally in front of Hartford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Detroit on Monday.

"We need better wages," Anderson said.

"If I had better health care, I wouldn't be scared to walk in here every night," she added.

In June, Whitmer launched a task force on nursing homes to prepare a plan in case the state is hit by a second wave of COVID-19.