SEIU nurses use Strike for Black Lives to speak of working in a pandemic

Jul 20, 2020

Organizers of what was called the Strike for Black Lives say Monday's nationwide event was a call to governments and corporations to confront systemic racism in society and in the economy. In the Buffalo area, 1199SEIU members also used the occasion to raise awareness of working conditions in local nursing homes.

"The nationwide protest is a strike for Black lives. Across the country, 1199 SEIU and other unions are striking for Black lives. Here what that's looking like is taking care of their workers," said Marshall Bertram, administrative organizer for 1199SEIU.

Members of 1199SEIU stage an informational picket outside Elderwood at Williamsville as part of a nationwide Strike for Black Lives.
Credit WBFO/Michael Mroziak

The union is calling upon nursing home operators to provide affordable health insurance, adequate staffing levels and ensure a workplace environment that's free of discrimination.

Employees represented by 1199SEIU at Elderwood at Williamsville on Bassett Road say they've been without a contract since May. But they say they've been under additional strain since before the lapse of their deal, when the COVID pandemic arrived in Western New York.

"We have PPEs but initially we didn't. And that was a stressful part. Now we're getting PPEs but we don't have the staffing," said Angela Haynes, a Certified Nursing Assistant at the facility. "So, people are working under pressure, the morale is down because we feel that we're not appreciated. We come in every day, we take care of our residents, we have compassion for them. We promote their quality of life and care."

Hayne and Bertram also say their efforts inside the facility have helped keep the number of COVID infections within the center to only a handful, and among the lowest among nursing homes in the region.

According to written communication by 1199SEIU, the demand Monday was for all employers to confront a "triple threat of white supremacy, public health emergency and broken economy." The union's international president, Mary Kay Henry, said in a prepared statement, "We cannot achieve economic justice without racial justice."

In Williamsville, Haynes says if workers in other industries are receiving hazard pay or other incentives to work through the pandemic, they too should receive it.

"You can't just come out here and pay people peanuts to take care of a life. You have people that flip burgers and work in retail, they're giving them hazard pay and giving them a livable wage, which is totally backwards," Haynes said. "To me, a life is more important than a hamburger or clothes."