As a few dozen Anthony L. Jordan Health Center employees marched back and forth in front of their workplace last week, they made a few things clear: they love their jobs, they want to get back to caring for their patients, and they want to be treated fairly by management.
The 65 or so Jordan Health Center workers represented by 1199SEIU have been trying to get a new contract with their employer since November, but talks stalled and the National Labor Relations Board brought in a mediator to help resolve the conflict. The stalemate continues, however, and the workers – ranging from medical records clerks to dental hygienists and typically earning between $15 and $20 an hour – went on a three-day strike last week.
"It's not like we want a lot," says Traci Gruschow, a registered dental hygienist who's worked at the center for 10 years. "We're just asking to be taken care of."
Mariann Toney, a nutritionist assistant at Jordan Health Center's Upper Falls Boulevard WIC office, says this is the first time in her 30 years working at the center that workers have gone on strike. Their main concern is preserving their health-care benefits, though they are also asking for a modest raise, she says.
And it's the workers' health benefits that have, in a rather convoluted way, become the sticking point. At the center of the standoff is the federal mediator's last proposal, which the union members voted in favor of, but which the center hasn't accepted. Both sides seem to be in agreement on most of the terms except the timing of a final raise. Administrators of the nonprofit health center want that final raise to hit six months later than union leaders.
The mediator's proposal sets a wage freeze for the rest of 2018, which Jordan officials requested for budgetary reasons and which the union agreed to. It calls for a 4 percent increase at the start of 2019, a 2 percent increase at the start of 2020, and another 1 percent increase on July 1, 2020.
The timing of the final 1 percent is necessary to pay for the workers' health insurance, says Bruce Popper, regional vice president of 1199SEIU. The Jordan Center workers are tied into a health care fund with 1199SEIU-represented workers at Strong Memorial Hospital. The arrangement allows the center to save substantially on benefits costs and allows for the workers to have an enviable insurance package.
Jordan and Strong make contributions to the fund based on a percentage of payroll, and the figure is based on three-year contracts with the insurers, Popper says. The July 1, 2020, raise is necessary to balance out Jordan's contribution, which is proportionally knocked out of balance with Strong's contribution because of the wage freeze this year, Popper says.
But the center is resisting and proposed shifting the final raise to the start of 2021. Committing to additional salary costs in 2020 isn't responsible given some financial threats the center faces, says Dr. Janice Harbin, its president.
The state cut one of the center's funding sources, and officials are bracing for possible federal cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, which provide coverage to 85 percent of Jordan's patients, Harbin says. As part of its mission, Jordan doesn't consider a patient's ability to pay when it provides services, she says.
"I have to be mindful of whatever dollars I may have or may not have," Harbin says.
The workers have received support from Mayor Lovely Warren, City Council President Loretta Scott, City Council Vice President Adam McFadden, City Council member Michael Patterson, and Assembly members Joe Morelle and Harry Bronson. They've also received support from Father Laurence Tracy, a Catholic priest with deep ties to Rochester's Latino community. Tracy served on Jordan's board for 30 years.
The union and some of its supporters went to a meeting of the Jordan Health Center's board last week to urge the trustees to accept the mediator's proposal. But the board took no action, leaving the issue unresolved. And last week, Harbin called on the union members to either accept its proposal with a later final raise or to leave out the 1 percent bump and have the contract end with 2020.
"We have put our best offer on the table," Harbin says.