The Star-Ledger

Nursing Home Workers Union Presses For Standardized Pay

The Star-Ledger — Friday, February 18, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

Virginia Martin remembers when she first started working in a nursing home 31 years ago. She was making $125 a week. But patients were not as sick as they are today, and there were more workers to help take care of them, she recalled.

"It's hard to keep people today. It's a lot of work for little money," said Martin, 63, an East Orange grandmother employed as a certified nursing assistant at the Newark Extended Care Facility.

With their contract set to expire on March 31 and negotiations getting under way, the union representing Martin and more than 4,000 other state nursing home workers met in Iselin yesterday to lay out their priorities. In addition to seeking fair wage increases, the union is also pushing for standardized wages that will cut down on salary variations from facility to facility.

The union also wants to ensure that family health care benefits are not rolled back for these workers, who also include dietitians, laundry workers and housekeepers.

"Paying workers a living wage and family health care will help solve New Jersey's high turnover problem," said Milly Silva, union president.

The annual turnover rate for certified nursing assistants in New Jersey nursing homes is about 45 percent, according to union officials. Silva said the high turnover not only compromises care for patients, but makes a challenging job even harder for other caregivers who must pick up the slack.

"I love what I do. I love my residents and they love me," said Martin. "But sometimes it's heartbreaking because most of them just want little things, and at times you really can't do it."

Because of her many years on the job, Martin now makes $13 an hour, when the average certified nursing assistant makes between $8 and $10, according to union officials. Still, with the high cost of living today -- her two-bedroom apartment costs her just shy of $1,000 a month -- she is barely getting by.

Evelyn Liebman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a statewide advocacy group, said there is little question that nursing home workers are among the most underappreciated in society.

"They need to be able to take care of themselves so they can take care of those people in the nursing homes," she said.

Paul Langevin, who heads the Health Care Association of New Jersey, the nonprofit trade association representing 200 nursing homes across New Jersey, said his members share a lot of the same goals as the nursing home workers. The reality, however, is that nursing homes are not being infused with enough money to raise worker salaries, he said.

"We are losing $27.85 a day on every Medicaid patient we serve," he said, adding, "half our revenue comes from the Medicaid program."

And while his members have made recruitment and retention a priority, Langevin said there are no easy answers right now given the "tough economic times."

In the end, however, someone must pay the price, said Perth Amboy Mayor and Assemblyman Joseph Vas (D-Middlesex).

"Ultimately, the residents and their family, who expect that their loved ones are receiving proper care, are the ones that are getting hurt," he said.

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