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St. Monica’s staffers vote to strike amid COVID-19 concerns

Unionized workers at St. Monica’s Rehabilitation Facility have voted to strike after 20 of them tested positive for coronavirus and one is put on a ventilator, union leaders said.

Members of 1199C held a demonstration in the parking lot of St. Monica’s Friday afternoon before their vote to strike. | Photo by Tom Beck.

Unionized staffers at the St. Monica Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare, 2509 S. 4th St., voted 64-3 in favor of striking on Friday in lieu of the facility’s failure to provide a safe working environment, they say. The staffers, members of District 1199C who consist of licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants and dietary aides, say they haven’t all been given the proper PPE to deal with residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We have masks, but not the proper masks,” said a dietary aide named Joe T. who didn’t want to provide his full last name out of fear of retaliation. “We have LPNs and they’re just using the regular surgical masks, not N95 masks.”

A nurse who was on shift this past weekend, who was willing to speak only anonymously, told SPR that some CNAs had to wear trash bags while working because the facility didn’t have the proper gowns.

“We’re wearing them from room to room,” the nurse said. “We’re just taking the germs with us.”

The nurse also said that suspected COVID residents have been kept in the same rooms as residents who were not suspected to have COVID, potentially spreading the disease. Most rooms have two beds, which are not 6 feet apart.

According to 1199C President Chris Woods, 16 residents at the facility are suspected to have died from COVID-19 since roughly the middle of March. Furthermore, 20 of the facility’s staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, one of whom is on a ventilator.

Woods said that the union sent a 10-day notice to the facility letting it know its intention to strike. If no agreement is reached by May 4, Woods says workers will walk off the job. 

“I think the facility has a responsibility to create a safe work environment,” Woods said. “We’re stepping up for our members and we want to make sure they’re protected.”

Furthermore, union workers say they’ve been working without a contract for the last seven months, adding to the squabble.

“The employer has refused to bargain with us,” Woods said.

In addition to the lack of PPE, some workers and even family members of residents housed in the facility say there’s been staffing issues. One nurse said that only two CNAs were dedicated to 60 different residents one particular day. The potential work stoppage has residents’ family members worried.

“I appreciate everybody working there, and I don’t have words to express my gratitude,” said Lisa Pagliarella, whose father, Anthony Greco, resides at St. Monica’s. “I’m worried about the contract negotiations. If they fall through, who is taking care of the people?”

The South Philly Review’s phone calls to the facility’s owner, New York-based Center Management Group, have gone unreturned. But Woods said if his union does eventually go on strike, the facility will likely have to hire an agency to staff the building. 

Cookie Imbrenda, whose 100-year-old mother, Mary Polito, lives at the facility, said she received a phone call from the facility who told her that her mother didn’t pivot correctly when getting out of bed. As a result, the two nurses on shift, who Imbrenda said were “relatively new,” had to gently lower Polito to the ground before putting her back in bed. Imbrenda later found out that Polito’s knee had been fractured. Just like Pagliarella, Imbrenda said that while she felt the staffers at the hospital did a generally good job, they were understaffed and under-resourced.

“When my sister and I are there, we take [my mother] to the bathroom ourselves because the aides are always short staffed,” she said. “It’s been horrible there.”

Both state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler and state senatorial candidate Nikil Saval were present at a demonstration the union had Friday afternoon.

Face masks donated by state Represtentative Elizabeth Fiedler. | Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Fiedler.

“I went [Friday] in support of the people who work at St. Monica’s and also the residents and their families,” said Fiedler, who donated 100 face masks to the workers. “It’s really important that everybody who works there has the protective gear they need to protect their health and the health of their residents.”

Saval echoed Fiedler’s sentiment.

“I think this is clearly just an insane situation,” he told SPR at the demonstration. “The situation in nursing homes across the city and the state is that people don’t have access to the things they need. We shouldn’t be out here begging for this.”

Saval called for “more attention to our long-term elder care assistants,” he said. “Well before this point, this was a neglected part of our care system, and the neglect is just even stronger right now when everyone is in a crisis.”

The medicare.gov website, which rates the quality of nursing homes, most recently gave St. Monica’s a one star out of five “overall rating,” which it considers “much below average.”

St. Monica’s, along with three other nursing homes purchased from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by Center Management Group, was a subject of a 2018 investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer that revealed the group’s pattern of cutting staff to increase profit margins. According to the report, the management group cut 4 percent of staff at St. Monica’s between the last full year of the archdiocese’s ownership and the year ending June 30, 2017. As a result, the report said, the facility’s profitability went from negative $25 per patient per day to positive $46 during that time period.

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