Nursing home union workers rally in Detroit demanding better pay, benefits

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nursing home union workers rallied in Detroit on Saturday, demanding higher minimum wage, improved benefits and working conditions ahead of contract negotiations.

About 200 nursing home workers representing SEIU Healthcare Michigan, the largest union of nursing home professionals in the state, gathered Saturday at Wayne County Community College District campus wearing purple and chanting, "If we don't get it, shut it down. Detroit is a union town."

The group is fighting for higher wages, affordable health care, and an end to excessive mandatory overtime, said Trece Andrews, a nursing home worker and union leader.

Trece Andrews, a nursing home worker and union leader, speaks to the crowd gathered at Wayne County Community College on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.

"We need $15 as a minimum and no less, we need unions for all because every nursing home worker needs a voice in their job and a seat at the table," said Andrews, who works at Regency at St. Clair Shores.

"We need affordable health care where we are able to still afford other things in life. As a stable mother and a small business owner, I don't qualify for Medicare, but don't make enough to afford health care to provide for my daughter."

Andrews has worked at the nursing home that cares for 145 residents for 20 years. Starting wages are $11-$13 an hour and oftentimes workers are on 16-hour shifts.

"It's really hard to work your way up to make more money and jobs that pay $16-$18 an hour, you need to go back to school for. ... It's not only affecting our health but putting the patient at risk," she said.

Several dozen union contracts are expiring at once, allowing workers to unite and fight for a new three-year contract together, union officials said. 

Workers are demanding higher pay, better benefits and improved working conditions.

Nursing homes are state licensed and regulated each year by the Bureau of Community and Health Systems. There are 457 state licenses nursing homes in Michigan, with 72 state-licensed nursing homes in Wayne County.

Officials including Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Brenda Lawrence, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, and state Reps.  Joe Tate and Tyrone Carter joined the rally, saying if it weren't for unions, they wouldn't be in their respective roles.

Levin said 37 years ago, he was working with SEIU, helping nursing home workers form unions in Michigan, and said from experience, "I know you can win."

"On Thursday, we passed a bill, Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the PRO Act, ... because right now, 6% of workers in the private sector have a union, but 48% want one," Levin said. "You can't get by making $8 an hour and that's why we've already passed the $15 minimum wage bill in the House. It needs the support of the Senate and a president who can get his act together."

As a former letter carrier, Lawrence said she felt protected knowing she was covered by a contract. 

"If we really love the people who reached their golden years, we have to love the people who take care of them," she said. "I was raised by my grandmother and know what it's like to care for elders. God bless you all and keep fighting."

 The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs receives approximately 3,500 nursing home related complaints each year, officials said.

"I love those residents," she said. "People who do this really love their jobs. Most people really have a passion and stay for long periods of time."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist speaks to the crowd of 200 nursing home workers at Wayne County Community College on Feb. 8, 2020.

Gilchrest shared his experience with his late grandmother, Dorothy. 

"You don't get in this job to get rich," Gilchrest said. You get in this job because you love people. You want to see them be their best selves and see them age in place and age with dignity. You want them to be able to understand the respect and love that only you can give them because you take care of them every day. That's why it's so insulting and infuriating when your workplace, when your management, when the company CEOs who have never seen you do your work, think they can take advantage of you every single day.

"That is the reason why organizing is so important because it’s how we create leverage — how we create power, by coming together and locking arms and knowing that five fingers is not as strong as one fist."

State Rep. Sarah Anthony announced Saturday that she would be introducing mandatory overtime legislation for Michigan to curb the worst abuses caused by short-staffing in nursing homes.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_