Union members amplify labor dispute with stocking of coal

Photos by Rebecca Panico
Members of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East gave a stocking full of coal to the site administrator of AristaCare at Delaire on Dec. 14 to symbolize their labor dispute.

LINDEN, NJ — Unionized employees at the AristaCare at Delaire nursing home in Linden presented a stocking filled with coal as a symbolic gesture in their labor dispute with the new owners of the facility.

“Here, this is for you,” said one member of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 United Healthcare Workers East on Dec. 14 as she handed the holiday stocking — red with green trim and bells — to the facility’s site administrator.

The “gift” illustrated the disapproval of the approximately 150 members of AristaCare, which bought the health care facility in June from Hospicomm. Ivette Mendez, the 1199SEIU political director, said the new management slashed employees’ paid sick leave and started charging for health insurance premiums.

“We’re under negotiations right now and it’s best not to talk about it now,” John Pelick, the facility’s site administrator, said after being handed the coal. He declined to comment further.

Karl Fritton, AristaCare’s labor counsel, said in a Dec. 14 phone interview that the company has been in negotiations with 1199SEIU and has “made good progress with them.”

Employees say they can no longer cash in their unused sick leave, which also was reduced from 12 to six days. Margaret Laucius, who has been working in the facility’s dietary department for about 13 years, said she’d rely on cashing in her sick leave to pay for gifts around the holidays.
“I have a nephew through my husband whose father got killed and I buy him Christmas presents out of my sick time,” Laucius said once her shift ended. “Two little girls by my house have no daddy, I buy gifts for them. Now this year, I can’t buy them any gifts. … It hurts.”

The union said workers previously did not pay anything toward their health insurance premiums, but are now being charged up to $1,000 a month for family coverage. Some employees told LocalSource their health premiums are anywhere from $40 to $180 a month for an individual and they make less than $15 per hour.

AristaCare Health Services owns six facilities throughout New Jersey. The company acquired a Manchester health care facility in 2015, and the company “reached an agreement” with the 1199SEIU union on health insurance, Fritton said.

“We ended up reaching an agreement with (1199SEIU), where the employees stayed in the ArtistaCare medical plan,” said Fritton, referring to the 2015 labor dispute.

Mendez confirmed an agreement had been struck in the Manchester dispute, but added “we have a different set of circumstances at Linden.”
Negotiations have been taking place since July at the 240-bed, long-term care facility in Linden, and employees haven’t taken a strike off the table. A majority of the employees have voted to authorize the bargaining committee to call a strike.

“Definitely we do not want to strike,” said Mendez. “We’ve been bargaining since the owners took over to give them a chance to restore the benefits. We’re giving the benefit of the doubt that (Aristacare) would do the right thing, and that hasn’t happened.”
The facility would continue to operate if a strike were to occur, Fritton said.

“We’ll continue to take care of our patients just as we would,” he said, adding they’d continue operating with current employees or replacements.
This was at least the second protest at the facility by members of 1199SEIU, the largest health care union in the nation. Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan, a state senator-elect, had previously joined protesters Monday, Dec. 11, in a prayer vigil outside the Linden facility.

Other officials have also showed their support for the union members, including Union County Freeholder Angel Estrada and Linden Mayor Derek Armstead. Both sent identical letters to AristaCare Health Services CEO Sidney Greenberger, calling for the the company to restore benefits to the employees.

“Nursing home workers provide a valuable service to our most vulnerable population,” read the letter, which was obtained by LocalSource. “Fair benefits including affordable healthcare are essential for our caregivers and their families.”

On Thursday, Dec. 14, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders sponsored a resolution to support the 1119SEIU workers at its agenda-setting meeting. The regular meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 21, when the final readings of resolutions are generally adopted.