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Voting day at the Church Home


June 27 is a big day for roughly 235 employees at the Episcopal Church Home.

            At the heart of the nursing home, among the warm wooden beams and Tiffany stained glass windows of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, these workers --- service, maintenance, and clerical employees; licensed practical nurses; certified nursing assistants --- will be casting votes that will decide whether or not they will be represented by 1199 SEIU Upstate.

            If the vote passes (by simple majority), the ECH will be a union shop for the first time in its 135-year history.

            The vote will be the final stage in what has become a protracted process involving worker testimony in front of the National Labor Relations Board, and the ECH's hiring of consultants Jackson Lewis, a law firm specializing in workplace law and "union avoidance," according to the firm's website.

            Employees at ECH say they initially approached SEIU in January. Their issues: dissatisfaction with benefits packages, the ECH's shift to an "earned time off" vacation plan, staff turnover and shortages, and the lack of a clear pay scale for new and veteran employees.

            Patrice Barr has been a certified nursing assistant at the home for the past 13 years. She says she was one of the ECH employees who initially contacted SEIU because "we need help."

            "In my 13 years there, things have gotten worse for the workers, not better," Barr says. "We used to have vacations and sick time. When they changed it to earned time off, all of our time was combined together. So if you get sick, that's your vacation. You accumulate a certain amount of hours a week. So if I've accumulated 12 hours, and I get sick for two days, that's my time. Then I have nothing. I have to start all over again."

            Susan Harnaart, another certified nursing assistant, has worked at the Church Home for 15 years. Paid $12.60 an hour, she talks about new hires at the ECH whose salaries are comparable to hers.

            "I was just talking to a new hire who started at $9.25," she says. "I mean, she's a new hire starting at $2 or $3 less than me and Patrice. That kinda stinks."

            "The really bad part about it," says Barr, "is that me and Sue have to train the new hires."

Then there's Eden. Toward the end of 2000, the Episcopal Church Home became an officially registered Eden Alternative facility. The Eden model strives to create habitats for human beings rather than facilities for the frail and elderly. Each participating home "Edenizes" at its own pace and according to its own formula.

            Typically, as is the case at the Church Home, Eden Alternative facilities provide their residents with plants, pets, and a "family style" dining option that's more like eating at a full-service restaurant than in a cafeteria.

            "Where it's done right, the union's very supportive of the Eden Alternative," says Bruce Popper, executive vice president of 1199 SEIU. "Where it's done wrong, it's a mess."

            Barr and Harnaart talk about "the cats and birds" as additional duties straining already tight nurse-patient ratios.

            In addition to their usual tasks, which include washing, feeding, and exercising residents, Barr and Harnaart say they're now being asked to clean bird cages and catboxes, and function as waitresses --- coming to each resident to take drink, main course, and dessert orders.

            "What is the remuneration for enhanced duties?" Popper asks. "There's a whole negotiation over having the staff do it right instead of management saying 'Same staff, we'll just do more.' Workers at the Church Home are telling us, 'Look, we don't have enough hands right now. When we're on a day that's short and you want us to do all this stuff, it's too much.'"

Church Home management has chosen not to comment publicly on the union campaign. Instead, long-time ECH President and CEO Loren Ranaletta has issued two brief press releases acknowledging SEIU.

            The first, issued in early April, states: "We do not believe that union representation is in the best interests of this organization, our residents, or our employees."

            In the second release, written June 13 in anticipation of the upcoming vote, Ranaletta says: "The employees at the Episcopal Church Home have always been able to come to any member of the management team, or human resources, with any issues, and we have always tried to work with our employees. We hope and believe that most of our employees will decide that a union is not in their best interests, and will vote to remain union-free."

            Ranaletta's opposition to the union has been made even more obvious by his decision to hire Jackson Lewis.

            The book on Jackson Lewis's union-busting activity is long and, depending on whose side you're on, either deeply impressive or alarmingly relentless.

            Known mainly as the law firm that thwarted the unionization efforts of Borders employees in the late-90s, Jackson Lewis has hosted expensive seminars with titles like "How to Stay Union-Free into the 21st Century." It was also chided by a hearing officer in 2000 for helping management at Boston's Corey Hill Nursing Home circulate a forged letter among the home's workers. Bearing SEIU letterhead, the letter apologized for the union's failure to do its job in representing hospital workers.

            Since Church Home workers began their union drive, at least 18 memos addressing the drive have been sent from management to staff. All of them encourage ECH workers to "know the facts" when it comes to organizing.

            One memo alleges that 1199 SEIU has been "intimidating employees who oppose the union." Another states that 1199 SEIU spent no money in 2001 "on behalf of individual members." One more says 1199 SEIU is only interested in the workers at the Church Home because "the union wants to break into the Rochester nursing home market. So far 1199 has negotiated only one nursing home contract in Rochester [at the Jennifer Matthews Nursing & Rehabilitation Center]."

            Each of these memos includes two lines of text at the bottom of the page: "Distributed for your information by Episcopal SeniorLife Communities. If you have any questions, please feel free to see your supervisor or any member of management."

A new state statute, "the labor neutrality act," prohibits nursing homes and other health care providers from using public funds to fight unionization.

            Hiring a consultant with a reputation like Jackson Lewis is a costly proposition. And 1199 SEIU wonders where that money is coming from.

            According to the union, close to two-thirds of the residents at the Church Home are getting financial assistance from either Medicare or Medicaid to help fund their stay. That level of funding alone, says Popper, is enough to raise suspicions.

            Church Home management will not comment on the amount of Medicaid and Medicare funding the home is receiving. One Church Home official would only say "I can promise you we're not using Medicaid money [to pay Jackson Lewis]."

            But 1199 wants proof. And Popper recently filed a formal complaint with the state attorney general's office, requesting an investigation into the Church Home's finances. (The statute requires employers to keep records for three years as proof taxpayer money was not used for anti-union activities.)

            "We know the Church Home conducted supervisory training on the clock," Popper says. "We know that they held captive audience meetings. We know they prepared literature. We know they hired a consultant. All of those are grounds for investigation under the state law."

            "Can I prove that they used Medicaid money to do that? No. It seems to me that if most of their funding comes from Medicaid and Medicare, the burden of proof should be on them to show that they haven't," Popper says. "Because if they co-mingle it, if they dumped it all into the same bank account, then how do you prove anything?"

            State Assemblyperson Susan John says the proof issue is a problem, and something that's being addressed at the state level. "We've talked about the notion that people could set up a separate foundation or bank account that has segregated funds in it which they will be using for [anti-union activity]," she says. "It was not going to prevent them from [fighting a union] if they make the business decision to do that. But they aren't going to be doing it with public dollars."

            John is one of several state politicians who have sent letters to Ranaletta in support of Church Home workers seeking union representation. And while she's eager to support the workers, she also recognizes the sad economic state of nursing homes throughout the country.

            "There's no question in my mind that ECH would pay better wages to all its employees if they had the money," she says. "But they've gotten hammered by the federal government. And the state has not been terribly kind to the nursing home industry, either. Because nobody wants to pay taxes. And taxes are what provide the funding to big health-care institutions because the majority of the nursing home population is Medicaid."