Article by United Healthcare Workers East
An obscure New York ownership group assuming control of a Lexington nursing home is implementing service and staff cuts that caregivers say could imperil the health and welfare of the more than 100 seniors who currently reside at the former Golden Living Lexington nursing home, stated the United Healthcare Workers East in a press release.
In an effort to protect seniors and jobs at the facility, workers are convening an emergency strike vote on Wednesday, May 7, in response to actions by the new operators, who caregivers say are out of touch with reality – and whose opening salvo of draconian job and service cuts could prove dangerous to senior residents.
The new ownership group, operating as “Zenith Healthcare Group,” has come under immediate fire from elected officials, caregivers, and senior advocacy groups for their gratuitous cuts to staff pay and service investments that caregivers say came with zero warning and that will immediately jeopardize senior safety by destabilizing staffing at the Lexington facility.
The cuts described in a recent memo by the new owners, who have avoided any contact with the frontline workforce until the issuance of the memo this week, will also immediately drive the majority of the facility’s workforce onto public assistance programs.
Maintenance staff, dietary workers, and activity aides at the nursing home were told with zero warning that effective the next day they would be paid a flat Massachusetts minimum wage of $8 per hour, regardless of years of service or prior pay rate.
Certified Nursing Assistants, Registered Nurses, and LPNs – many of whom were already earning below the industry average at the facility – were threatened with wage cuts that averaged approximately 40 percent.
At the same time, Zenith ownership informed nursing home staff that they would reduce company contributions to health insurance plans to 50 percent, a move that will immediately bankrupt or push the majority of staff and their families onto public assistance for both food stamps and health coverage.
“If you continue to work for us tomorrow, as we hope, please note that you will be paid and receive benefits as herein outlined and not until now,” read the memo, which shocked and insulted caregivers.
“It’s an outrage. Many people would simply quit, but we decided to stay and fight to protect this nursing home and the quality of care for the seniors who live here. We will not be forced to choose between caring for our residents and a life of total poverty,” said Gertha Mesidor, a certified nursing assistant with 20 years of service at the facility. “You cannot get qualified staff in this industry at minimum wage. The seniors deserve better. We will not let these new owners manipulate or bully the workers and seniors at this home.”
“Zenith Healthcare Group,” a relatively unknown entity in the long-term care industry, does not clearly identify its owners or operators on its website and has failed to adequately respond to requests for dialogue with frontline caregivers since purchasing the former Golden Living Lexington for an undisclosed sum late last year. According to filings and reports related to recent purchases of two New York facilities, Zenith appears to be owned and operated by New York residents Ari Schwartz and Deborah Schwartz.
“These actions would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous to seniors,” said Lermond Metelus, a Certified Nursing Assistant with 25 years of service at the facility. Lermond suffered a pay cut of approximately 50 percent overnight. “We already didn’t have enough staff at this facility, and now they’re going to drive out anyone remotely qualified to care for the more than 100 seniors who call it home.”
Meanwhile, caregivers have legislation pending at the State House (SB. #287 and HB. #149) which would create a public hearing process and additional oversight in the event of nursing home purchases and sales, including transactions involving out-of-state entities like Zenith.
"It appears Zenith is attempting to profit by imposing a great deal of suffering and hardship on both seniors and their caregivers," said Barbara Mann, President of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, a prominent senior-
run advocacy organization. "Seniors deserve quality care and when companies make these kinds of cuts, everyone suffers."
In a December 2013 press release, Zenith’s “philosophy” is described as being based on the idea “that employees are the single most valuable asset of a nursing home and all decisions should be made with the single goal of improving resident care.”
Among the “amenities” described on a Zenith corporate website, the company breathlessly describes its “belief” in providing “complimentary local phone service” and televisions to residents.
Despite failing to communicate its intentions regarding the draconian cuts to employees until the day before they were implemented, the Zenith states that “Communication is the key to any business especially in the running [sic] a successful Rehabilitation program.”
The site appears to have been hastily constructed and is riddled with typos and missing words. In contrast with recent developments in Lexington, the company’s “overall summary” reads in part: “We also have the heart and soul to make sure that both residents and staff are treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and, therefore, know that an ownership transition will be consistent with [sic] current approach and values that are already set aside in the current building.”
It is unclear if Zenith has communicated details of its plan to radically divest from frontline staff salaries and services to family members of nursing home residents at the Lexington facility.
State Senator Ken Donnelly released a statement voicing his support for workers at the facility in his Fourth Middlesex district and blasting Zenith:
"Slashing the already modest wages and benefits of those that serve our most vulnerable residents is shocking. For many of the employees at Golden Living this reduction will result in wages and benefits that can no longer sustain a family, requiring them to rely on the state for government food subsidies and health benefits.
It is discouraging to see such an example of what can only be described as corporate greed by a company that appears to have no regard for the values and standards of the community in which it is doing business.
This kind of action by Zenith does not represent the values of my district nor is it fair to the tax payers of the Commonwealth who ultimately end up of footing the bill. I hope the company will reconsider its actions and work with the employees to find a solution that does not compromise the care of their customers and provides a living wage for its employees."