Cold Spring Hills Center for Nursing & Rehabilitation employees, on their own time, stood loud and proud on Syosset-Woodbury Road in a picket from Aug. 4 to the 14th, calling to receive benefits for the very service they provide, health care.
On Aug. 9, the union held a rally with local politicians and political candidates. Music blasted, picketers chanted and cars honked their horn.
According to union 1199SEIU, 443 caregivers began the picket because they will be cut off from their health insurance on Aug. 25 unless management makes their contractually agreed-to payments into the workers’ health benefit funds. The picket called on management to fulfill their contractual obligations, and if they won’t, they’re calling on New York State to step in and find a new operator who will preserve job standards at the facility and safeguard the continuity of care for residents.
The picket comes after a lawsuit filed in December by New York State Attorney General Letitia James against the facility, alleging fraud. According to a press release from the Office of the Attorney General, an investigation by the office found that Cold Spring Hills’ owners “diverted over $22.6 million in Medicaid and Medicare funds from resident care through a fraudulent network of companies that were used to conceal up-front profit taking.”
“The employers failed to make contributions to the benefit fund for almost four months now,” said Timothy Rodgers, vice president of the Nursing Home Division with 1199SEIU. “We received notice from the benefit fund, which is a separate entity from the union, about two weeks ago that as of Aug. 25, the benefits will terminate at this facility unless the employer makes the necessary contribution.”
Rodgers added that in a conversation between the employer and the union, the employer stated they while they do want to contribute, they are unable to. Currently, Rodgers said, there are 10 Department of Health workers in the facility conducting surveys. While Aug. 9 was supposed to be their last day, they are staying longer.
“We have staff that are leaving already just because of the working conditions that management has put them under, and this has just exacerbated the situation when we have members who are on maintenance medication, when their children are on their insurance,” Rodgers said. “It’s that hard choice. They worked here for a long time. They love their residents like family, but they have to provide for their own family. They have to provide health benefits. So if that means they have to get a job somewhere else, that’s what they’re going to have to do, which is only going to create a further short staffing and a potential harm to the residents.”
On top of short staffing and mismanagement, losing health care benefits would make a front line job like health care all the more risky. Health care workers are at high risk of contracting viruses like COVID-19. And on Aug. 2, the New York State Department of Health reported that there has been another uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations (however the numbers are still lower compared to the height of the pandemic.)
“What is happening at this facility is greed,” said Polly Henry, a 1199SEIU clerk. “We need new beds for the patients. We need Hoyer Lifts for the patients. We need better food for the patients. We need to have a bistro for the patients at night. One aide told me at night she has to use her own money to get food from the machine for a diabetic patient who woke up in the middle of the night and needed to eat.”
Henry said the cutoff of insurance is heartbreaking, as she and fellow activists were just in Albany explaining to lawmakers the importance of modernizing the nursing home and calling for an increase in funding towards Medicaid and Medicare.
Employees, ahead of the potential Aug. 25th cutoff date, are already scrambling to reschedule their surgeries and take care of their ailments.
“I was just recently going down the step and hurt my knee,” Henry said. “I don’t get enough benefits to go to the doctor. The doctor is already telling us ‘your benefits are canceled.’ It’s not even the 25th yet. We don’t have any benefits, after we worked so hard… This is something that was contractually agreed.”
Henry said that her friend, who was picketing, contracted COVID three times. “Her lungs are no good. Her feet are swelling up. She has to be on a sleep apnea machine. She constantly has to go to the doctor. Now she has to cancel all these appointments.”
Michelle Byrne, a physical therapist assistant at Cold Spring Hills Center for Nursing & Rehabilitation who hopes to retire soon after 39 years, said in 2009 she ended up on a ventilator with streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. “I had to learn how to walk again, talk again,” Byrne said. “It took me six months to recover. 1199 paid every single dime of my hospital bill, which was over $400,000. I’m thinking about it, because as a result I have lung issues. I have heart issues, and I don’t know what’s going to happen… I never, in my wildest dreams, thought this would happen.”
Elizabeth Walsh, a housekeeper who’s been at the facility for 36 years, said she won’t be able to get a surgery done for an injury if her benefits are taken away. Meldona Campbell-Burchell, a certified nursing assistant, said she also has to reschedule her eye surgery.
“It’s too close,” Campbell-Burchell said. “If I don’t have my benefits to cover them, I can’t do it. It’s my eye surgery. I can’t even see.”
But even with all the challenges posed by the job, one message was made clear throughout the rally, the employees here love their patients.
“They’ve been at my Thanksgiving table,” Byrne said. “People that didn’t have family members. We would do their laundry, because we wanted to… We just know what this place has the capability of being, and that was our hope when the new owners came in a few years back. That’s what we want.”
Torray Coppedge, a housekeeping aide, said that at times, you can have a nurse with 43 residents.