by Melissa Unger, Executive Director SEIU Local 503
Over the last two weeks, workers at The Rawlin – a memory care facility in Springfield, OR – have taken the extraordinarily brave step of confronting their managers about poor working conditions, poverty wages and reckless policies that workers say led to unnecessary deaths.
One of the care providers, Summer Trosko, told us last week that she felt compelled to take action. With her voice cracking from the pain and trauma she experiences at The Rawlin, Summer told us that she has to go to work every day “knowing that people are dying and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
If you haven’t watched the testimonials from Rawlin workers, please take a moment to watch them today. They are powerful.
Summer and her coworkers are going on strike next week to save their residents’ lives and to improve working conditions, training and pay for their coworkers. “I love my residents,” Summer said. “I can’t leave them.” Instead she and her coworkers are demanding that management recognize their union and start fixing things.
Their actions are part of a much larger movement that’s only just beginning. COVID-19 exposed our long-term care industry. Too many preventable deaths happened in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities, which accounted for about half of the lives lost in Oregon. While we have seen a lot of media attention on nursing homes, facilities like The Rawlin – a memory care facility – have less regulation and less transparency than a nursing home. For example, The Rawlin does not have the same staffing requirements as nursing homes, resulting in dangerous situations that still fall within the legal guidelines for running a home.
Workers, residents and their families have borne the brunt of this suffering and they are demanding change. At the same time, huge sums of taxpayer dollars went into the system through the CARES Act and other pieces of legislation. The Rawlin’s owners – an investment company called Onelife – got a quarter of a million dollars in public money from Health and Human Services for COVID relief. But the money is not translating into better outcomes for workers or residents. There are examples of some facilities doing the right thing, and those are opportunities we can learn from, but the failures we have seen have caused fear for workers and deaths for residents.
In the coming months and years we will see more and more people taking the steps that workers at The Rawlin are taking today. By demanding a seat at the table and a voice in how facilities are run, workers will make them safer. We know that when workers have a union, COVID mortality rates are 30% lower. We also know that unions raise wages, improve benefits and fight for policies that save lives, such as staffing ratios and training.
We are on the cusp of huge change in long-term care. Change that will elevate workers, restore dignity to the lives of seniors and people with disabilities, and create good union jobs that can not be automated or outsourced. This is all happening now. It’s people like Summer and her coworkers who are making it happen.