STAMFORD – “One, two, three, four – no one should be working poor!”
At the entrance to The Villa at Stamford Thursday, a nursing-home worker banged out a beat on a blue plastic bucket as her co-workers followed, chanting. Some held signs: “Be fair to those who care.”
Marieta Postoli made her own sign, directed at the owners of The Villa. “You are thieves,” it read.
“I’ve worked here seven years,” said Postoli, 58, of Stamford. “I make $18.06 an hour. There aren’t enough workers here, so we do double shifts. And I do private-duty work. I need the money. I’m a single mother.”
It’s a story nursing-home workers are telling statewide as their union, Service Employees International 1199 New England, rallies them in a push for better staffing, higher wages, and adequate health insurance and retirement benefits.
Certified nursing assistants, dietary and housekeeping workers in Connecticut are in short supply, and last year SEIU 1199 was able to settle 54 contracts with nursing homes, said Jesse Martin, union vice president.
But eight contracts, including one with The Villa, are pending, Martin said. Negotiations have been going on for six months, Martin said.
“This is one of the few nursing homes that have continued to deny the workforce fair pay and affordable benefits,” he said. “The state has allocated $185 million to support wage increases and enhance benefits for workers. But the contract proposals from The Villa do not capture that money or the statewide standards for wages and benefits.”
In the contracts negotiated last year, nursing homes agreed to pay certified nursing assistants at least $20 an hour and dietary and housekeeping workers at least $18.50.
Certified nursing assistants at The Villa earn $15 an hour and other workers get $14, said Natasha Royal, an elected organizer with SEIU 1199.
Martin said nursing homes also received federal COVID-19 relief payments.
“I don’t know exactly how much The Villa got, but similar facilities got hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
The owners of The Villa took over the nursing home in 2016. For decades it was run by the city and called Smith House.
According to The Villa’s most recent Medicaid cost report, it’s owned by partners Charles Gros, Shlomo Levi and Shlomo Boehm. Levi is listed as an administrator along with Peter Showstead, who works on site. Connecticut requires the reports because nursing homes get most of their revenue from Medicaid provided by the state for the care of patients covered under that program.
Showstead said The Villa at Stamford is negotiating with the union to come to terms on a new contract.
“We’ve offered significant increases in salary for both current and future employees as well as enhanced medical benefits,” Showstead said. “We will continue negotiating in good faith and hope to reach a finalized contract in the near future.”
The report says The Villa has two related companies – Smith House Realty and Center Management. State records show that Villa partner Gros is also an officer of Smith House Realty and CEO of Center Management Group.
“These owners don’t live in Connecticut, don’t come to Connecticut. They live in New York,” Martin said. “The Villa is simply a way for them to gain wealth, to make a profit off the sacrifices of nursing-home staff – Black and brown and white working-class women, who make up the vast majority of nursing-home workers in Connecticut.”
Nursing homes use management companies “to siphon Medicaid money away from bedside care for their profit. It’s been state law since 2014 that nursing homes must disclose payments to related entities because so many create entities for that purpose,” Martin said.
The Medicaid report shows that The Villa in 2020 paid Smith House Realty $1.4 million for “rental of facility” and Center Management $204,000 for “administrative management.”
“It’s perfectly legal,” Martin said. “But a lot of things are legal without being moral.”
Certified nursing assistant Audrey Thompson of Stamford said she’s worked at The Villa since 1996. Now 62, she fell on the job last year while lifting a tray, but The Villa’s insurer refuses to cover therapy for knee and back pain, Thompson said.
“I go twice a week and I have to pay $45 out of my pocket each time,” Thompson said.
Health insurance is a sticking point in negotiations, Royal said.
“Doctors are making our workers sign guarantee letters before they treat them, because the insurance company doesn’t pay. The letters say that if the insurance company refuses, the person has to pay,” Royal said. “The Villa would rather bring in per diem workers from an agency because they don’t get benefits. And The Villa doesn’t want to give anybody any kind of retirement plan.”
No wonder nursing homes have too few workers, Martin said.
“They have been the backbone of the COVID response, working double shifts on countless days for more than two years,” Martin said. “Many have gotten sick. This is the second-most dangerous job in the U.S. because of COVID. Before that, it was the fifth-most dangerous job because they are lifting and moving people and large equipment.”
State Rep. David Michel, a Democrat from District 146 in Stamford, joined Thursday’s protest.
“Nursing-home workers have been treated unfairly for decades. The pandemic shined a light on it,” Michel said. “When COVID first hit, hospitals were trying to make room and sent older patients to nursing homes, not realizing they were asymptomatic carriers. The workers got sick, and worse. And they brought it home to their families.”
Thompson said nursing-home workers do an important job.
“We are taking care of everyone’s loved ones,” she said. “But The Villa reaps the benefits. We can’t get crumbs off the cake.”