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Nursing Home Workers Join the Fight for $15

On Wednesday, April 15, nursing home workers in Pennsylvania joined tens of thousands of home care workers, retail workers, fast food workers, adjunct professors and other low-wage workers in the largest global mobilization in the Fight for $15 to date.

Pennsylvania nursing home workers need a raise.

That was the message carried far and wide by hundreds of certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, housekeepers, dietary and laundry from an industry that is both profitable and publicly funded.

At the same time, tens of thousands of other low wage workers held strikes in over 200 cities in the US and as far away as Brazil and Japan, marking the largest-ever global mobilization of such workers.

“I work in a nursing home because it’s fulfilling to know you are helping people and giving care to those who need it most, but it’s a struggle,” said Leslie Houseweart, a CNA at a Pittsburgh area nursing home. “If it wasn’t for public assistance, I couldn’t go to work every day – I’d be a welfare mother. I rely on Medicaid for my children’s health insurance, subsidized day care, and food stamps.”

“There is no money for living,” Houseweart notes. “There is just enough to survive, but not to live.”

Despite the valuable service they provide to seniors and people with disabilities, nursing home workers are struggling. A new report by the Keystone Research Center confirmed that 52% of PA nursing home workers can’t support their families on the wages they make. Many relying on public assistance or are working more than one job.

“I believe these jobs we do are important and should be valued,” said Chris Sloat, an LPN at an area nursing home. “Taking care of our seniors should not be a path to poverty for the healthcare professionals who choose this calling.”

The typical wage of a Pennsylvania nursing assistants is about $13 per hour while dietary and housekeeping workers earn two to three dollars less on average. These wages are well below the self-sufficiency standard (defined as high enough to support oneself without public assistance) in virtually every county in Pennsylvania.

“I rely on public assistance to put food on the table and wish I didn’t have to,” said Laquanna Wallace, who has been a CNA in Harrisburg for 21 years. “I am trying to finish my college degree to build a better life, but I need classes I can’t afford. It’s hard to work your fingers to the bone but feel like you can’t get ahead.”

The nursing home industry can afford to provide a living wage – in 2013 alone it generated more than $370 million in profits. Nursing homes derive 70% of their revenue from Medicaid and Medicare; at the same time, 14% of nurse aides and 28% of dietary workers say they or someone in their family receives public assistance. In essence, nursing homes are “double-dipping” public tax dollars to subsidize poverty jobs.

“The nursing home corporation I work for brings in millions of dollars,” said Barb Alt, a certified nursing assistant at Golden Living Center Richland. “Meanwhile, I have to decide if I should buy groceries this week, or my husband’s insulin.”

A wage increase would also benefit nursing home residents by reducing turnover, improving continuity of care and lowering recruitment and training costs.

Finally, providing nursing home workers a living wage would boost our economy and lift job standards across the board. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, increasing nursing home worker pay to $15 an hour would put more than $300 million back into the economy, create about 1,500 jobs and generate more than $30 million in new tax revenue for the state and local municipalities.

Nursing home workers speaking out for a living wage, dignity and respect is but the latest chapter in the rapidly expanding global fight for $15 an hour. Beginning with the fast food strikes in 2012, new waves of workers are adding their voices, including airport, childcare, home care, retail workers, adjunct professors and more.

With each new action, low wage workers are changing the social discourse to say that no-one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

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