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Florida's nursing home caregivers make history

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 9/16/2011, 10:50 a.m.
Florida's nursing home caregivers make history

With constant attacks on unions from Republicans and big business, union workers have found it increasingly difficult to organize in recent years.

But in Florida, nursing assistants have found the way and recently had a big win.

After negotiating with the company Avante for two months, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) reached a historic agreement on Aug. 23: the first union contract in the state of Florida that includes safe staffing requirements. This is a big gain for union workers and patients, because workers will gain more guaranteed hours and patients will receive a minimum weekly average of at least 2.9 hours of bedside care per patient per day. The new contract also provides union workers with wage increases, bonuses, a 401(k) plan with employer matching contributions and health insurance and tuition benefits.

Nursing assistants has been a growth area for workers in recent years-especially for people of color-but in many states, wages and benefits have lagged behind the growth in the other health care professions.

CNA member Doreen Holm expressed satisfaction with the results in Florida.

"When we learned the state had rolled back minimum safe staffing levels, we felt like our wings were clipped and wondered, 'How are we going to take care of people's loved ones in the best way possible?'" said Holm.

"My co-workers and I are overwhelmed and excited that we were able to negotiate a contract that includes safe staffing protections for residents. It's something we fought for as soon as we found out the state was rolling back staffing levels." Holm has been with CNA for 23 years and has worked at Avante for four and a half years.

"I think this is one of the best contracts we've gotten so far," stated Holm. "We're very excited about how far we've come. We did it by standing together."

On July 1, Florida enacted a law that rolled back minimum safe staffing requirements in nursing homes. 1199 SEIU members at the Avante-owned Lake Worth Nursing Home seized the opportunity to maintain higher safe staffing levels by negotiating the provision into their union contract.

According to 1199 SEIU, since minimum safe staffing levels were instituted in nursing homes back in 2001, care in Florida has greatly improved. Florida has been praised for having one of the highest standards of nursing home care in the country ever since. But the new law cuts minimum safe staffing levels in nursing homes permanently from a 2.9-hour weekly average per resident per day by certified nursing assistants to 2.5 hours of care. Nursing homes like Avante's weren't required to roll back safe staffing.

"These are all of our loved ones. I'm very glad that residents will get much better care with our contract's safe staffing protections in place," said Holm.