Nursing Home’s Labor Dispute Simmers

By Josh Richman

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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OAKLAND, Calif. — A holiday-season labor strike at San Francisco’s Jewish Home was canceled at the last minute, but the strife is far from over — and the well-being of 430 elderly residents hangs in the balance.

About 380 workers, including vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, dietary aides, housekeepers, porters and drivers at the nonprofit skilled nursing facility, have been without a contract since June 30. Service Employees International Union Local 250, a 95,000-member union based across the bay in Oakland, Calif., struck the home for one day in November and had scheduled a five-day strike to start December 23.

But 11th-hour pleas from residents’ families and from Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat whose late mother spent her final days at the home, convinced the union not to strike, at least for now. The plea from Boxer — usually a staunch ally of organized labor — came in a six-sentence note.

I know “that the issues facing your members are critical to their economic survival and I want to help,” Boxer wrote. “Today, I am asking you to cancel the planned strike scheduled for 12:00 p.m. this evening,” the senator added. “I offer you my promise to do all that I can to help bring the parties together to resolve the issues surrounding the contract.”

SEIU Local 250 President Sal Rosselli told the Forward that although this plea “resonated” with the union, “our position is just as strong, and we look forward to getting Senator Boxer’s help in getting political support to force a change.

David Sandretti, Boxer’s communications director, said the senator got involved because “the residents at this home are very frail and very dependent on the workers, and she obviously wants to see management and the union come together and reach some sort of accommodation without resorting to a strike. She wants to help; she doesn’t have any specific plans about what she will do.”

Almost all the home’s residents are Jewish, with a three-to-one ratio of women to men and an average age of 88. Four-fifths of the residents use wheelchairs or walkers, according to the home’s president and CEO, Daniel Ruth. Since its creation in 1871, the home was among the original beneficiaries of the local Jewish federation, Ruth said.

The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties has given the home about $200,000 per year in recent years; the federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund kicked in another $125,000 last year, plus a $1million capital campaign contribution. Federation Marketing Director Hallie Baron said the agency “wants everybody to come out of this as best they possibly can. The bottom line is to provide the best possible care for the people who live there, but this is between the home and its employees.”

The union says that Ruth, who became the chief executive of the home a few years ago, is the stumbling block.

“For decades we’ve been having a very positive collaborative relationship with the management of the home. Daniel Ruth is relatively new; we’ve never bargained with him before,” Rosselli said, adding that Ruth has been inflexible on his demand for benefit cuts and a wage freeze. “His position is absolutely unacceptable to the union. As long as the workers are united like they are now, we will never accept it.”

Ruth, who served as the president and CEO of the Village Shalom senior living community in Kansas City, Mo., before taking the San Francisco job in 2002, said the union’s strike threat, even unconsummated, cost the home about $250,000 in commitments to replacement workers and in other costs. The home’s operating budget for the 2004-2005 fiscal year is $44 million.

“They were once again reckless… and they continue to ignore the significant financial issues that are facing the Jewish Home,” Ruth told the Forward. “Until they, in word and in deed, recognize that the home has financial issues that it needs to address as identified by our auditor, we cannot have productive and collaborative dialogue.”

Ruth said the home sustained an $8 million operating loss in the previous fiscal year, contributing to a $25 million operating loss over the past four years. About 83% of the home’s operating revenue comes from state Medi-Cal and federal Medicare reimbursements, which have remained inadequate due to public budget cuts even as costs have risen. Rising workers’ compensation insurance premiums have taken a bite, as well.

“This is a trend that the auditors encouraged the board of trustees of the home to reverse,” Ruth said. “When 72% of your costs are tied up in wages and benefits, unfortunately you cannot ignore that as you begin to reverse your finances.”

Rosselli countered that Ruth “is being disingenuous.”

The union chief insisted that the home hasn’t been struck as hard by California’s budget crunch as some comparable facilities, and claims the facility has made more than $34 million in profits over the past five years.

The chairman of the home’s board of trustees, David Friedman, told the Forward the board “has full faith” in Ruth and is “in complete unanimity and support of Daniel and in management’s negotiating approach.”

The Jewish Home recently began building a new wing with money from a capital campaign with a $55 million goal; it will have state-of-the-art medical clinics, a geriatric research center and a new modern, kosher kitchen. Renovation of existing facilities will create new wellness, fitness and creative arts areas; a new synagogue and spiritual space, and a coffee bistro and gift boutique for residents. Meanwhile, dietary, housekeeping and laundry workers start at $10.50 per hour, and certified nursing assistants start at $12.50 per hour, according to SEIU news releases.

Ruth said the home has paid its workers 20% to 40% more than similar skilled nursing facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area while offering fully paid health benefits until now; the proposed contract would give the lowest-paid workers a 14% raise over three years, even after newly mandated health-care contributions.

Resident Council Co-President Edith Sadewitz, 84, said she can’t speak for all her peers, but she feels “very much disturbed by it. I don’t understand why the union is pressing the staff here, their union members, to be so negative about it.”

Since arriving a year-and-a-half ago, “I’ve been embraced by people at the home,” Sadewitz said. “To me this is a model senior facility and it’s a blemish to have this kind of thing happen. It hurts.”






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