On this blustery Thursday afternoon, a crowd of more than 20 employees who work at the Jackson Square Nursing Center, 5130 W. Jackson, paced up and down a sidewalk next to the Austin facility. They held signs and shouted refrains.
“Workers, united, will never be defeated!”
“What do we want? 15. When do we want it? Now.”
The workers, members of SEIU Healthcare, staged the informational picket while similar demonstrations were happening simultaneously at three other nursing homes — Park House Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, California Gardens Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and Aperion Care Forest Park — throughout the city and suburbs.
The Nov. 12 nursing home pickets took place two days after hundreds of fast food workers in Chicago, and thousands across the country, staged fiery protests calling for a $15 minimum wage.
The service workers’ collective demand for a wage increase has become a topic of national interest since at least Nov. 2012, when hundreds of fast food workers in New York City walked off their jobs to protest their working conditions, their low wages and, in some instances, the fact that companies were illegally stealing wages. Media reports at the time considered the demonstration the largest strike in the fast-food industry’s history.
Since then, the ‘Fight for 15’ has become a national rallying cry and has attracted support from workers in other industries — like Amber Huerta, 30, a CNA at Jackson Square Nursing Center who makes the city minimum of $10.
In 2014, in the run-up to last spring’s mayoral election, Mayor Emanuel introduced a measure (which eventually passed) that would increase the minimum wage for city workers gradually over several years — from $8.25 to $13 by 2019.
But that isn’t enough, said Huerta, who noted that she’s been employed at the Austin facility for about a year. When she started working there, she had been making the previous minimum of $8.25.
“If they don’t raise our pay, I think we’re going to have to strike,” Huerta said.
Leanita Williams, 23, is a CNA at Renaissance at Midway, a nursing home in the city’s Midway neighborhood. She said she came to the Austin facility to show her support for her fellow CNA’s even though she plans to find another occupation soon.
As the Jackson Square workers paced along a public sidewalk next to the facility, Williams stood at the building’s entrance with Tanisha Johnson, 35, a CNA who works at Woodridge Nursing Pavilion in Logan Park.
Williams and Johnson, who are also members of SEIU Healthcare, were trying to encourage more Jackson Square employees to join the demonstration. They described the Austin center as relatively weak in solidarity, with many of the center’s employees afraid to demonstrate due to a fear of reprisals from management.
“They may think they’re going to get fired, but you’re not getting paid anything, anyway,” Johnson said. “And plus, they always firing CNA’s at the drop of a hat. When [management] knows that you’re weak, they’ll keep treating you like s–t.”
“You’re not going to picket with us?” Johnson asked a woman in scrubs as she walked into the building.
No, the woman said, before expressing her belief that the way to more money wasn’t through picketing, but through college.
“I went to college, too, but so what?” said Williams. “We have to make it so that the next generation coming up doesn’t have to go through what we’re going through. I went to college, too, but you’re never too good to stand up to help your fellow employees.”
Williams and Johnson said the workers’ protest was about more than their own financial well-being, before launching into a series of complaints about mistreatment of both employees and the elderly who reside in the nursing homes.
Johnson complained that the facility where she works is infested with lice and bedbugs. Williams noted, and Johnson agreed, that workers often have to purchase supplies like shampoo and soap for their clients with their own money.
“Sometimes they’re low on diapers and towels, so we pay for that stuff out of our own pocket. We care enough about our residents to not want them to go around smelling,” Williams said.
On top of paying to work, the two women said, they’re barely getting paid. Williams said her employer has tried cutting workers’ vacation time and putting them on a three-year wage freeze.
“If you want to make more money, you’re going to have to pick up another shift,” Johnson said. “They don’t want to pay you.”
Critics argue that raising the minimum wage would force companies to lay off workers since the cost of employing them would be higher. At the Nov. 11 Republican presidential primary debate — which was picketed by advocates of a minimum wage hike — most of the presidential candidates on the debate stage opposed the idea for this reason.
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” said retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
But Sylvia Martinez, a nursing home field director for the SEIU, said that this popular criticism of a minimum wage hike doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and called the argument a “scare tactic.”
“If anything [it would] increase jobs and improve our economy, because people would have more money to go out and spend,” she said.
A fact check of Carson’s claim by the Associated Press noted that what he described “usually doesn’t happen.”
“When the minimum wage was increased in 1996 and 1997, the unemployment rate fell afterward. In June 2007, when the first of three annual minimum wage increases was implemented, the unemployment rate was unchanged until the Great Recession began six months later,” the AP notes.
“Economic research has found that when states raise their minimum wages higher than neighboring states, they don’t typically fare any worse than their neighbors.”
For Williams, however, the issue is about much more than economics.
“Do you really want to put your family in a nursing home where the workers are getting underpaid and the building is understaffed? You really want to bring your family member to a nursing home that doesn’t care enough about the residents to supply what they need? No, I wouldn’t want to send my family to a nursing home like this.”