Symphony of Chicago West, a nursing home at 5130 W. Jackson Blvd. Workers at the facility could go on strike on May 8. | Symphony of Chicago

Workers at 40 Chicago area nursing home facilities, including three in Austin —  Austin Oasis, at 901 S. Austin Blvd.; Symphony of Chicago West, at 5130 W. Jackson Blvd.; and Mayfield Health Center, at 5905 W. Washington Blvd. — could go on strike on May 8, in order to demand higher wages, hazard pay and adequate staffing levels.

“This crisis is not new,” said Greg Kelley, the president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents the frontline workers, who include receptionists, cooks, nursing assistants and other employees. 

“Our members have been working in difficult circumstances for a long time,” Kelley said. “They’ve been underpaid, overworked and understaffed. COVID-19 has brought this reality to the forefront. It’s made a difficult job a dangerous job.” 

The workers delivered the strike notices to facilities on Monday. Kelley said that the workers voted “overwhelmingly” to authorize a strike. 

One worker at Oak Park Oasis in nearby Oak Park, who was contacted by phone last week, said that about 51 frontline workers at her facility plan on going on strike on May 8.  

The worker, who requested anonymity, said that she and her colleagues are experiencing conditions similar to Tamika Haynes, a certified nursing assistant at Alden Debes Manor in Rockford.

“I’ve been on the job for 17 years and make only $16.76 an hour,” Haynes said during a videoconference on April 29. “In most professions that require training and experience, you expect to get decent wages as the years go by. Not us. We’re just getting deeper in the hole. And I have a lot of coworkers who make less.” 

In a statement released April 27, SEIU officials said that the union members’ contract covering the 40 facilities is set to expire on  May 1.

“Workers were hopeful that the Illinois Association of Health Care Facilities would agree to a one-year agreement with modest and reasonable accommodations to address the extreme risks and challenges workers now face as a result of working on the frontline of a pandemic,” according to the statement.

The workers are calling for $15 an hour and $16 an our for CNA’s; a 50 percent hazard pay bonus for working during the pandemic; an additional 80 hours of paid sick leave for COVID-19 or related illnesses; better training; more personal protective equipment; and “provisions for continued health care coverage for any vulnerable workers who have to take leave from their job to protect themselves and their families.” 

Kelley said that a federal mediator has gotten involved in the negotiations. 

“Today is our first virtual face-to-face negotiation for some time,” Kelley said during Wednesday’s videoconference. “We’ve indicated that we’re prepared to meet as often as necessary to avoid a strike. As someone who has been on the strike line a bunch of times in normal circumstances, going out on strike isn’t easy. Going out on strike during pandemic is infinitely more difficult.” 

Kelley said that the union is “prepared to do what’s necessary over the next nine days to avert a strike,” but that the union is serious about the workers’ demands. 

Bob Molitor, the CEO of The Alden Network of nursing homes who sits on the board of the Illinois Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents the nursing home owners, wrote in a letter to state lawmakers that the association “offered an 11% one-year pay hike, stable employee health insurance contributions, earlier access to sick days, paid sick time during the pandemic in addition to contractual sick leave, creation of a training fund, and more for certified nursing assistants, dietary, activity, laundry and housekeeping employees,” according to an April 27 Chicago Tribune report.

“We sincerely hope the union is not using this once-in-a-lifetime crisis to incite a walk-out and put our seniors at even greater risk,” Molitor stated in the letter.

In an email to AustinTalks, Lauryn Allison, the director of communications for Symphony of Chicago West stated that certified nursing assistants “fill a critical role in caring for the elderly and vulnerable patients at our facilities We support the (nursing homes’) offer to increase CNA pay and are already issuing hazard pay at Symphony facilities.

“We sincerely hope the union can work through its concerns with the operators’ association by remaining at the negotiating table rather than instructing their members to walk off the job during our patients’ time of greatest need.”

First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, whose district covers Oak Park, said during Wednesday’s videoconference that he stands with the front-line workers.

“We, as elected officials are calling upon the nursing home owners to settle this contract with the provisions that are needed to safeguard the workers and the residents,” Johnson said.

“The majority of nursing home workers are African-American, black women in particular. It’s clear that the higher risk factor of COVID-19 are people within my district. The black community that has borne the brunt of not just this criss, but others … We are calling on the leadership of these facilities do what’s right by workers.”