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500 Silver Crest workers walk out for one-day strike

Demanding safe staffing, increased benefits and higher wages, nearly 500 health care workers staged a one-day strike at Silver Crest Extended Care Center in Briarwood last Wednesday.

The employees voted to join 1199/S.E.I.U., New York’s health and human services union, in October, and have been trying to negotiate a contract with management since January, said Joyce Neil, an 1199 vice president. Talks broke off in July, and after a failed attempt to resume negotiations Aug. 14, the workers voted in favor of the 24-hour job action, she said.

The workers picketed outside the nursing home Wednesday, charging management with failing to negotiate in good faith. “They’re refusing to negotiate fairly,” said nurse Hilda Jordan, who has worked at the home for 10 years.

Christine Laitook, a certified nursing assistant who is also a 10-year Silvercrest veteran, said management was offering a 3 percent raise over two years. The workers are seeking an 8 percent wage hike.

But the most outstanding issues, Neil said, are increased benefits, a pension plan and workers’ freedom to stage sympathy strikes.

Many picketers said the strike was also to protest against a lack of grievance channels and short-staffing.

“Most importantly, we need respect,” said Laitook. “If management calls us in, we cannot say a word.”

Sandra McGregor, a CNA who has worked at Silvercrest for three years, said she walked out on strike because she could not properly care for her patients.

“We’re understaffed,” she said. “We’re unable to give adequate care to the residents. When they ring the bell, we can’t answer their calls promptly.”

Jordan, a nurse, said the home is often under-staffed. “I have to see 13 to 14 patients during the day and sometimes up to 20 at night,” she said.

The daughter of a patient, who declined to give her name, said there were staffing concerns at the home at 144-45 87th Ave.

“They’re always working short-staffed,” said the woman, who was visiting her mother who has been at Silvercrest for three years.

Despite complaints about staff levels, family members of patients said they were pleased with the care offered at Silvercrest.

Daniel Dolce, whose father has been a Silvercrest patient for two years, said the staff had “become like members of our family. They’re unbelievable.”

Ana Bemis, whose mother has been a resident for five years, said the home is “exemplary. In five years, my mother has been so well taken care of.”

Mark Bergen, an 1199 vice president, said the nursing home was short-staffed because “everything is about dollars. Less people providing less care is their way to operate.” He said that instead of hiring sufficient staff, Silvercrest spent money to hire the law firm Kelley Drye as a consultant in an effort to keep the union out.

Silvercrest management declined to discuss the strike with the TimesLedger.

But in the most recent report to the federal Health Care Financing Administration officials of the 320-bed home said its nursing assistants spend an average of 2.3 hours per day with each resident, slightly above the minimum the agency recommends. The HCFA web site indicated there was no way to verify the homes’ claim.

“They don’t have safe staffing, but they have millions in assets,” Bergen said. According to the most recent figures from the state Department of Health Medicaid Cost Reports, Silvercrest’s profit margin rose from 5.62 percent in 1996 to 9.41 percent in 1998. The nursing home’s net worth more than doubled in the same time period to nearly $10.5 million, according to the figures.

In 1998, the extended care center generated $3.6 million in profits on top of revenues of nearly $36 million.

“We care about the patients, but all they care about are profits,” said Laitook.

In an unannounced inspection at Silvercrest on April 2, state Health Department inspectors found 25 violations, including five serious ones with “potential to cause harm” to residents requiring significant corrections, said Robert Kenny, a Health Department spokesman.

Cynthia Rudder, president of the Manhattan-based Nursing Home Community Coalition, said Health Department citations are generally a result of “a continuing crisis of not having enough staff in nursing homes.”

“The facility failed to properly ensure residents were comfortable and provided with pain management care during dressing of existing bed sores or wounds,” said Kenny.

Inspectors also cited the home for failure to properly change the dressings of residents’ wounds or to properly give them medication to ease their pain.

Kenny said inspectors returned to the center on an unannounced revisit Aug. 13 and the home is now in compliance with state regulations.

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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