Nursing home staffers postpone strike plans after letter from Raimondo

Updated at 5:15 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – Nursing home staff workers that had committed to an Aug. 5 strike date said they will postpone their strike after receiving a letter from Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, promising better standards and asking organizers to postpone strike amid the pandemic.

There is currently no new strike date set.

“This is a very difficult time for a strike in nursing homes, given the unique vulnerability of nursing home residents to the novel coronavirus,” wrote Raimondo in the letter. “We need to keep our nursing home residents safe as we continue our effective response to COVID-19. For these reasons, I ask that you please postpone a job action.”

Raimondo wrote that her office was “fully committed” to working with the Rhode Island legislature and Service Employees International Union District Healthcare 1199NE to help find a solution to the state’s nursing home staffing crisis.

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The letter was sent to Patrick Quinn, the vice president of SEIU 1199NE, on Thursday afternoon after the union held a virtual press conference where Rhode Island legislators and community organizations signaled their support, according to spokeswoman Amelia Abromaitis.

“For years, caregivers, seniors and family members have been calling for an end to the deadly status quo in nursing homes and we are glad Governor Raimondo has taken an important step toward ending the short staffing crisis,” said Adanjesus Marin, lead organizer for SEIU 1199NE in a statement on Friday morning. “The legislature and state government have the power to fix this tomorrow.”

Despite the withdrawal, Scott Fraser, CEO and president of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, said that without a contract signed, there continues to be a threat of staff members walking out on residents at any time.

“The treat of this strike puts our nursing homes into a crisis,” said Fraser on Friday. “Our residents, unfortunately, are being used as pawns in the union’s quest to pass a staffing mandate that in fact, would close some nursing homes and put staff out of their jobs.”

Fraser said he is urging the union to, instead, speak to the governor about Medicaid reimbusements, which she is proposing to cut by $7.5 million for the upcoming year’s budget.

On Thursday’s call, Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence; Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence; Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, and Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, D-Providence, joined the Rhode Island Organizing Project, Sista Fire, the R.I. Interfaith Coalition to End Poverty and the RI AFL-CIO to endorse the efforts of SEIU and their plans to strike.

Goodwin previously sponsored a bill in the R.I. Senate, which Cano co-sponsored, that called for increasing pay rates for CNAs up to $15 an hour, mandatory set hours of face-to-face interaction residents and employee training. Slater and Williams had co-sponsored a similar bill in the R.I. House, but it resulted in the House calling for a commission to study staffing in nursing homes, which led to a march and protests at the state house last week.

“I am disappointed the General Assembly did not pass legislation to establish minimum staffing levels in Rhode Island nursing homes, and I understand the resulting frustration of nursing home staff,” wrote Raimondo in her letter.

Williams said she wasn’t aware of the governor’s letter.

“For me, that’s just another stall tactic commonly used by the powers that be,” said Williams to a Providence Business News reporter. “That’s just a line out of their ‘keep them oppressed’ book.”

More than a year ago, caregivers had submitted contract proposals that SEIU said would create safe staffing standards of 4.1 direct-care hours, wage increases, affordable health care and employee training. The proposals attempted to address the short-staffing crisis in nursing homes access the state, but the SEIU 1199NE organizers now say these conditions resulted in untimely deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s our time to challenge our government leaders and business leaders,” George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO said in Thursday’s call.

(ADDS paragraphs 7-9 with Fraser comment.)

Alexa Gagosz is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Gagosz@PBN.com.

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