At the core of the new contract are industry leading wages, staffing ratios and training programs.
By Melissa Unger
“It’s about respect.”
Workers at Avamere nursing homes repeated this refrain throughout an intense, month-long negotiation with management over their new contract. After a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged nursing homes and took the lives of more than 160,000 people in congregate care settings across the country, we’re used to hearing platitudes like “hero” tossed around. But the realities of life as a long-term care worker are low wages, poor healthcare, nightmarish working conditions and extremely high burnout rates. Who wouldn’t feel disrespected?
Last week, the long-term care industry finally took a step forward. Workers at Avamere—Oregon’s largest nursing home chain—reached a landmark agreement with management to raise wages, stop short staffing, and improve their training program. This isn’t just another contract. The wins are dramatic. Some workers will receive a nearly 30% wage increase, the company will follow staffing ratios beyond what’s required under the law, there will be a new training program that’s more akin to a big hospital system than a small nursing facility, and workers will get a stronger voice in the company.
“This contract will save lives,” said Melissa Unger, Executive Director of SEIU Local 503, Oregon’s care provider and public services union. “With more than 50% of COVID-19 deaths in Oregon occurring in long-term care settings, workers and management understood that we needed to work together to solve problems and create better outcomes for our seniors. Today we have set a new standard for the entire long-term care industry.”
At the core of the new contract are industry leading wages. The deal sets an $18 per hour wage floor for CNAs, provides pay increases for CNA2 certification, and gives workers the chance to renegotiate their wages every year, which will ensure that Avamere wages remain the highest in the state.
“This wage scale allows a CNA to stay a CNA,” said Penny Meyers, an Avamere worker in Clackamas. In the past, low wages drove good people to “go work fast food or go work at a hospital just to be able to keep a roof over their heads,” Meyers said.
Low wages are one of the primary reasons nursing homes struggle to retain staff. Under the new contract Avamere will be able to hire great people and retain them. This in turn will have a profound impact on their ability to provide high-quality, consistent care to their residents.
In addition to wages, the new contract addresses staffing and training. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted short staffing and poor training in congregate care facilities across the country, but these problems existed long before the disease reached the U.S. Under the new agreement, Avamere will exceed the staffing ratios currently required by law. They will also launch a pilot program to test acuity-based staffing, where decisions are made based on the specific needs of residents, not just their numbers. The pilot program could be a new standard for the industry.
On training, the company agreed to create a preceptor program. Preceptor programs—common in large hospitals—provide opportunities for CNAs to be trained as trainers, and they provide time for new hires to get properly trained before being asked to carry a full workload. This will ensure that every worker in the company has the opportunity to succeed and residents are always in capable hands.
“This is, no doubt, the most we’ve ever won in a single contract,” said Sam Browne, a CNA at Avamere Beaverton. “It lays the groundwork for a bright future for all Avamere workers.”
Additionally, Avamere will form a labor-management committee to work through issues year-round. The contract also creates a pathway for non-union homes in the company to join the union through a “card check” process, which is an expedited way for workers to win a new union.
All told, the Avamere contract is a landmark victory for workers in the long-term care industry. Now, SEIU members across the state are considering how to hold other companies accountable to rising to this new standard.