Workers at Oakwood Village, a retirement community and assisted living facility in Madison, are currently in contract negotiations with management. The workers are members of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, and their current contract is set to expire at the end of this month. Virgie Burton is a certified nursing assistant at Oakwood and a part of the union bargaining team. She has 20 years of healthcare experience, 10 of it at Oakwood.
Virgie explains what workers are fighting towards. “We’re just trying to negotiate a decent contract with a living wage and safe working conditions to bring in better staff and keep them to help us take care of our residents.”
The pandemic changed what work and life looked like for everyone at Oakwood. New safety precautions meant that the previous ways of doing things were no longer sufficient, and it became evident that there was no plan ready for this emergency, and staffing shortages quickly emerged.
“I would almost say it was like madness, or definitely a crisis situation,” says Virgie. “What we had to go through was, you know, with the COVID just breaking out in different areas with different people, people were taken off the schedule if that they COVID symptoms. So there was short staffing, people were picking up extra shifts, coming in early, staying late to try to make up. We kind of felt like we had to just step up and do what we had to do.”
In addition to staffing issues from COVID cases among staff, the union claims that over 300 employees at Oakwood were either fired or left the job last year, leaving many positions open and remaining workers having to pick up those shifts. Some departments have turnover rates of up to 86%. This is the result of the pandemic, which no one was prepared for, and a management that continues to ignore workers.
“As caregivers and frontline workers through this whole thing we don’t feel that we are respected or listened to or valued, to be honest. With the COVID going on, it puts an extra stress on us as workers as well,” says Virgie.
The main priorities for workers in the negotiations are ‘Healthcare Heroes Wages’ and safe staffing. Virgie says that ‘Healthcare Heroes Wages’ really means a living wage for workers.
“We have worked hard through this healthcare pandemic to make sure that our residents are taken care of,” explains Virgie. “Like I said, we come in early, we stay late, we pick up shifts, and at the end of the day, we are compromising ourselves, we are compromising our families, and we are doing the best we can in a crazy crisis to make sure our that residents are taken care of every day through this pandemic, and still going through it. It has been over a year.”
Virgie also argues that increases in wages are important to maintaining staffing levels that ensure a safe workplace and a safe home for residents. She says that increases in wages will help to recruit more employees and retain people, which will help the crisis of short staffing and overworking that people experience today.
The current contract that workers have with management is set to expire at the end of this month, and management has refused requests to extend the contract during negotiations. Virgie says that this is new for Oakwood to get this close to a contract end without an extension or new contract, and management has been unilaterally making changes to wages and working conditions.
“They have done some things without contacting the union, which is a thing that they should be doing because we have a union contract. There are certain things that happen that management is supposed to bring to the union if they want to implement them or do them if they have to do with work conditions, wages, or benefits,” says Virgie. “So it kind of gives the implication, when you do those things and not contact the union, that, as the employer, you can do these things, but the union can’t really do anything for you. So it kind of puts of a negative on the union and all the work that they’ve done over the years. And by not extending the contract, that also leads us to believe that, possibly, are there other intentions [from management]. We don’t know yet.”
Workers and the union are asking community members to add your name to their petition, which will be delivered to the CEO and Board of Directors of Oakwood. The focus of the petition is calling for a fair contract with ‘Healthcare Heroes Wages’ to recruit, retain, and recognize employees. The petition can be found online here, and updates can be found on the Facebook page for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.
Image: The front of Oakwood Village Prairie Ridge in East Madison. Image credit: Google Maps street view, captured July 2019