At a press conference held at a protest outside the Alden Wentworth nursing home, 255 W. 69th St., Gregory Kelley, Executive Vice President for SEIU Health Care Illinois explained the current state of affairs for the healthcare workers.

“We’re out here today: here and at 10 other sites throughout the region with nursing home workers who we believe and they believe deserve a raise,” said Kelley. “We’ve been in negotiation with the owners of the nursing homes for about two years and our members are fed up and saying we want a decent and fair contract and decent wages.”

Kelley was flanked by a number of local elected officials, including Aldermen Toni Foulkes (16th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th), Democratic gubernatorial candidates J. B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy, former mayoral candidate and Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia, and representatives of local Organized Labor.

The protest on April 7 was part of a regional effort to call attention to the chronic understaffing and substandard pay they say are endemic to the nursing home industry in Illinois. More than 1,000 nursing home workers protested at 11 nursing homes in the Chicago area and those demonstrations may be just a taste of what’s to come if ongoing negotiations between nursing home owners and the workers’ union fail to bear fruit.

“Decent wages” seems to be a big sticking point. While nursing home workers are currently among the lowest wage workers in the state, according to Kelley, nursing home owners apparently still believe that workers’ salaries are too rich. During negotiations, Kelley says that the owners have proposed reducing new employee salaries to below the Chicago and Cook County minimum wage of $13 an hour. But according to Kelley, the owners’ drive to suppress wages is unsustainable and can only negatively impact the industry moving forward.

“So obviously, we are rejecting (their proposal). If you’re going to pay nursing home workers—who again are dealing with the sick and the elderly—less than minimum wage, how do you even take care of folks? You just won’t have the staff to do it. And so workers are overworked and understaffed and they’re severely underpaid.”

Dominque Nelson, a housekeeper at the Alden Princeton Nursing home, agrees that any talk of reducing wages is a non-starter. Tasked with cleaning as many as 18 rooms per day from top to bottom, Nelson describes the work as “backbreaking” and he believes that the owners aren’t concerned with paying what is necessary to provide quality service because they are too focused on their own bottom line.

“It’s like they only care about themselves, and a lot of people are leaving this place because of that,” said Nelson. “My work is worth more. It’s hard work because I have so much to do. It’s important work because I want the residents to feel happy, healthy and comfortable. I go home feeling tired, worn out, sleepy and I have kids that look up to me and I love my kids and I love the residents. And that’s why I’m here today.”

At this point, the battle lines are clearly drawn and time is running out for both sides. According to Kelley, negotiations with the nursing home owners dragged on long enough and unless there is progress soon, his members are set to walk out.

“We bargain for the last time on April 27,” Kelley said to members at the protest. “We’re hopeful, you all, that we’ll get a settlement; but if we don’t, we are prepared for a strike.”

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