If you ever wonder what kind of intrepid and benevolent soul works in New Jersey’s nursing homes, consider this terrifying math: Our long-term care facilities still have among the highest COVID rates in the nation, there are still 120 active outbreaks today, and nursing homes still account for one out of every three COVID deaths in our state.
As of Wednesday, there were 8,687 deaths at these facilities, including 145 staff members – people who left their own families in the teeth of the crisis to care for our seniors. They did this backbreaking and hazardous work without proper masks or PPE, often before tests were widely available, with protocols that were too often bungled by overwhelmed supervisors.
More than 23,000 of these workers caught the virus, risking their lives for $14 or $15 an hour. They are nursing aides, who do the bathing and changing and feeding. There are laundry workers, housekeepers, and kitchen help. By now, you would think their employers and a grateful public would find a way to value them like the healthcare heroes that they are.
But here’s the thanks they get: Many show up for work nowadays to find out that their workplace has been sold – most often to a private equity firm – and that their union-negotiated benefits have vanished.
Let’s agree that a business model which treats the work staff like disposable parts in the healthcare industry is grotesque and counterintuitive. But it is also unacceptable in any universe that venerates the dignity of workers and the seniors that they serve, so it’s time to move two bills moving through the Legislature that will help end to this moral disgrace.
The latest example occurred at the former Windsor Gardens home in East Orange, purchased by Complete Care Management, which has purchased 12 residences this year: Workers showed up last spring to learn that their new employer had torn up their collective bargaining agreement, and erased their health insurance plan, their pension, their educational benefits, and their paid time-off.
Similar ruthless tactics have been used all over the state – from Englewood to Burlington – usually by companies like the Toms River-based Complete Care.
Workers from 1199SEIU, New Jersey’s largest healthcare union, have picketed at many of these sites – including the new Complete Care at Orange Park two weeks ago. But the negotiations on a new contract have stalled, and workers, needless to say, are getting desperate.
So Sen. Joseph Vitale, who has been to their demonstrations and came away outraged by “sick management strategies,” was inspired to draft two bills.
One (S-4500) requires new buyers of nursing homes to honor existing union contracts and preserve all employee wages and benefits for at least six months after the sale or after the expiration of the agreement (whichever comes later). It extends the same protections for nonunion members.
Vitale has met with industry folks (including Complete Care CEO Sam Stein), so he already knows that their go-to objection is some variation of, “To follow the last owner’s model is suicide, so we have to cut employee costs.”
So he’s making nursing home operators prove it: A second bill (S-2759) requires that they disclose their financial statements, as well as Medicaid cost statements.
These are logical steps that will help protect workers, agrees Richard Mollot, the president of the Long Term Care Community Coalition (LTCCC), a non-profit advocacy group that documents industry staffing levels.
“Operators that maximize profits tend to cut down on staffing and benefits to reduce costs of care,” Mollot said. “In a state with weak oversight, like New Jersey, that is an easy thing for operators to do with impunity.”
Vitale knows that the industry is “broken,” in part because the state’s low Medicaid reimbursement rate cannot keep up with operations costs — not when three out of four nursing home residents are on Medicaid.
Andy Aronson of the Hospital Care Association, the trade association that represents nursing homes, says it is simple math: “It’s a fixed-revenue business,” he said, “and with labor costs rising, we can’t pass it along to our payers, the public.”
That is a discussion Vitale welcomes, and he issues this blunt challenge to his colleagues: “I mean, put your money where your mouth is,” he said. “If we’re going to prove that we truly value our seniors, we make sure their caregivers are paid well, trained well, treated well. The Legislature has to step up, and so does the industry.”
These two bills, which flew through committees in both houses, are the right places to start. Nursing home workers — and our seniors — deserve at least that much.
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