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Nursing home union seeks raises

Andy Ouriel • Mar 5, 2014 at 3:20 PM

A bitter bargaining quarrel underscores a long-brewing dispute between Erie County commissioners and employees at the government’s nursing home.

Since this past fall, both sides have clashed on terms for a new three-year contract involving about 65 union employees working at The Meadows at Osborn Park, formerly the Erie County Care Facility, near Osborn MetroPark.

In short, union representatives want to maintain or increase benefits and pay packages for employees in a new contract.

Commissioners, however, contend the union’s proposal isn’t feasible, especially considering the nursing home’s poor financial standing.

The nursing home has collectively lost about $4 million in year-over-year deficits dating back to 2002, according to county financial data.

One primary reason for the red ink circles back to nursing home workers receiving excessive bonus payouts and other benefits compared to other county employees, commissioners contend.

A neutral third party recently publicized demands and counteroffers from both sides in a fact-finding report, in which an unbiased official presents claims and suggests recommendations for a possible settlement.

But no such compromise occurred.

The fallout: Almost each nursing home employee partaking in a vote based on this fact-finding report supported the opinion.   

But county commissioners — Tom Ferrell, Bill Monaghan and Pat Shenigo — all rejected it. A consensus between both sides would’ve ended the dilemma.

It’s unknown when a new agreement could be reached. The new three-year contract would run through 2016. Nursing home employees are working off the previous contract, which expired at the end of 2013.

To avoid a potential walk out, both commissioners and union representatives must strike a deal soon.

At stake: The 120 people or so living there today who’d need care from someone else if nursing home workers go on strike.

Both sides provided statements about the ongoing struggle.

“We have asked for our employees to become our partner and have a vested interest in not only our patient care but also with the financial stability of a taxpayer asset” Shenigo said.

Said Lisa Alexander, the nursing home’s union representative: “We have committed employees who care for the elderly in this community. We encourage the county commissioners to come to the table with us and bargain a fair contract. We are always willing to work with them”

Through financial data obtained from a public records request, the Register found several problems both sides disagree upon that require resolution. Also included: how much area taxpayers have fronted for certain expenses in question.

Conflict No. 1: pay raises

•What the union wants: salary bumps in each year for all employees.

The union’s desired pay scale for certain nursing home employees would look like this: 

— Year 1: 10 cents per hour increase.

— Year 2: 15 cents per hour increase.

— Year 3: 20 cents per hour increase.

•Financial fallout: Based on present-day payroll, the raises union representatives seek would total about $118,000 during the new contract’s life.

•What the county wants: no salary increases in the new contract.

County officials want to avoid allowing the nursing to operate under a deficit or create any more debt for county taxpayers. That can’t happen with salary increases, they said.

Officials countered by proposing a “success-sharing plan” in which employees can receive extra compensation based on the nursing home’s bottom line. A year-end surplus, for instance, would entitle employees to a bonus.

Conflict No. 2: sick leave cash conversion

•What the union wants: maintain a policy of cashing in accrued sick time, or pay employees can receive when not using all of their allotted unused days for health reasons.

In the most extreme example, employees putting in at least 21 years can receive a payout for all unused sick time at their full hourly rate.

Even employees who complete just one year at the nursing home can obtain a 50 percent payout at their fully hourly rate.

•Financial fallout: Area taxpayers fronted $31,000 in sick time for nursing home workers last year.

•What the county wants: limit payouts.

No other county entity or department, such as the sheriff’s office, receives this type of payout percentage for unused sick time.

Private nursing homes, meanwhile, typically don’t compensate employees for not using allotted sick time.

Commissioners just want nursing home workers to receive the same sick time benefits other county employees receive.

This would include workers only receiving a small portion of their unused sick time that’s eligible for a cash conversion.

Conflict No. 3: overtime pay

•What the union wants: maintain or possibly expand overtime opportunities for full-time workers.

Workers typically obtain overtime, receiving as much as double their hourly rate, during holidays and severe weather conditions.

•Financial fallout: Area taxpayers covered almost $272,000 in overtime costs for nursing home employees in 2013.

•What the county wants: use part-time help to offset overtime costs.

Commissioners also want to forego paying employees overtime during holidays and severe weather conditions.

Conflict No. 4: attendance bonuses

•What the union wants: keep bonuses employees get for simply showing up to work.

So long as nursing home workers record 80 hours every two weeks and get to work on time, they stand to receive an extra $12 per pay period.

•Financial fallout: Attendance bonuses cost $14,500 in 2013.

•What the county wants: eliminate this bonus.

No other county employee obtains an attendance bonus simply for showing up to work.

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