Pennsauken Nursing Home, Union Caregivers, Brace for Strike Amid Contract Talks

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Representatives from Local 108 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union say they’re fighting benefit reductions. New owners of the Riverfront Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center  say they are ‘pushed past the typical limit’ on costs.

By Matt Skoufalos | July 23, 2019

Riverfront Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center at Cooper River. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Staffers at a Pennsauken nursing home could be headed for a possible strike, as contract negotiations with new bosses at the facility have not been fruitful after nearly five months of talks.

In January, the 180-bed Cooper River West facility at 5101 North Park Drive was sold by Genesis Healthcare of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania to Alliance Healthcare of Lakewood, New Jersey.

At the time, it had been designated as a Special Focus Facility (SFF) subject to federal oversight by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS designates only 88 SFF locations nationwide; they are sites with severe quality-of-care issues.

After the sale, Alliance rebranded Cooper River West as the Riverfront Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center at Cooper River, and by March 2019 had improved its standing with CMS, graduating from the SFF program. Owner Philip Bak said the improvements, led by compliance consultants and a systematic overhaul of its operations, preserved the center from shutting down.

“We took over a compliance-distressed facility that was financially on the brink of insolvency,” Bak said. “The state is extremely happy and pleased with new ownership of the facility.”

Some staffers are less enamored of their new bosses, however. At the time of its takeover, Alliance began renegotiating contracts with its unionized workers, which includes the Local 108 Chapter of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

District 1199C includes about 30 or 40 registered and licensed professional nurses, and Bak said Alliance is close to finalizing contract terms with them. It’s farther from coming to terms with Local 108, however, which represents about 90 housekeeping, dietary, and certified nursing assistant employees.

They’ve been in negotiations since Alliance took over, but remain far apart on key details, said Local 108 President Charles Hall said. Its workers want to retain their existing health plan and paid time off (PTO) accruals; Alliance is negotiating for less expensive benefits.

“Their intention was to negotiate the contract in one day before February 1, and forcefully push all their terms into place,” Hall said. “We’ve been insisting to meet and negotiate.”

Charles Hall. Credit: RWDSU Local 108.

Under Genesis, Local 108 enjoyed a zero-contribution Blue Cross Blue Shield healthcare plan, a top benefit for staffers, some of whom have worked at the nursing home for more than 20 years, and most of whom average $12-to-$13-an-hour wages.

The plan Alliance has proposed “would lead to people having out-of-pocket expenses,” Hall said.

“As caregivers, we need to be healthy to take care of our patients,” He said. “We want our major medical plan.

“The company [wants to]  put us into what we believe to be a lesser plan that we’re not sure what the benefits are,” Hall said.

Local 108 is willing to increase its cost share to 20 percent of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan; Hall said the Alliance-proposed health plan wouldn’t require any employee contribution in the first year, but exposes workers to higher out-of-pocket costs.

“Because it’s so valuable to us, we’re willing to pay, and proposed to pay, about 20 percent in order to bring down the cost,” Hall said.

Hall said the union also has offered to give back two personal days, two holidays, “and probably another five days of vacation time” to keep its health plan.

“We’re probably at eight days, and they’re probably looking at five or six more days on top of the eight that we gave back,” he said. “If we could reach an agreement on the money and on staying in our plan, we’re a few days apart. We can find some middle ground on PTO and wages.”

Riverfront Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center at Cooper River. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Bak, who has managed labor negotiations throughout his career in healthcare, said Alliance has proposed transitioning Local 108 to a non-contributory health plan that “we feel is a pretty good plan.”

He said the company has offered Local 108 six weeks of paid leave, plus five holidays for senior-level employees, with the opportunity to cash out unused time.

“It’s more than I would like to give, but I’m understanding that people have been at this facility for a number of years,” Bak said. “They feel it’s not enough, and in the same breath they complain that when Genesis was running the facility, there was not enough staff.

“I have no problem with the union health insurance,” he said; “I have a problem with not controlling the cost of the health insurance as it goes up and up and up.”

Bak said he’s offered to put language in the contract to offer an option for employees to revert back to the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan if the replacement plan underperforms. After the investment Alliance has made in getting Riverfront out of CMS Special Focus designation, the facility needs some flexibility from the unions, he said.

“We’ve been more generous than I’ve ever been in my entire career,” Bak said. “We pushed ourselves past the typical limit. We feel at a certain point we’re just negotiating against ourselves. I don’t really have much more room than this.”

Hall said Local 108 continues to push for mediation to resolve the differences between the two parties. However, the union also has issued a 10-day notice to both Alliance and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service ahead of a planned strike next week.

Bak said Alliance has replacement workers “ready to go.

“We don’t believe the majority of people are going out on strike,” he said. “We have a good group of people and ownership is in the facility a few times a week.”

Hall said striking is a measure of last resort, but that Local 108 is prepared to go the distance to retain its benefits.

“In this industry, it’s hard to find people to work in the first place,” Hall said. “People who have been here a long time, their experience goes a long way. It’s hard work and it’s low pay.”

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