Have you every worked 16 hours in a row? Have you done 16 hour shifts every other day or every 3rd day? Would you like to keep that up for 7 months straight? That is life as some care staff know it at King Veterans Home located about 30 miles Southeast of Stevens Point near Waupaca.
Twenty-five staff spoke-up about conditions at the King Veterans Home at a listening session for the public on July 26th at their union hall. This morning one of the staff members, Sara Goodhue, was put on a “disciplinary track” for speaking to WTDY recently about staffing and care conditions. AFSCME’s Marty Biel told me about the matter by phone this morning: “This was on her private time. … They are sending a message to the workers: we will discipline you for speaking”
“I wonder if they [other workers] are going to be singled out for speaking out on the conditions on their own time?”
At the moment the staff of King Veterans home dread filling 950 overtime shifts in this month according to a press release from AFSCME. There are around 550-600 CNAs to provide 24-hour care according to one of the workers there [an update with definitive numbers is forthcoming].
King Veteran Home’s beds have been full: 97% occupancy and on average 700 veterans since November of 2011.
Wisconsin VA Secretary John Scocos contends that AFSCME’s numbers on King are not accurate. In a recent letter to Scott Walker Scocos says “The WDVA is proud of its ability to break even at the WVH-King while still maintaining an “above average” rating of four stars out of five in Nursing Home Staffing in all four of its Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNFs) by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).”
Job listings for a CNA at the King home show $12.844 per hour and $13.899/hr as starting wages.
Scocos also said morale is “very good”.
That is not what I hear from King staff, none of whom would go on the record for this blog post. I was able to communicate with a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) who will quit in August and a CNA who hopes to retire as a King employee in a few years. Democratic candidate for the 14th state senate, Margarete Worthington, was there to listen and she’s shared her findings with me.
Above: Location of King Veterans Home [about 30 miles S.E. of Stevens Point] WI
I spoke with a CNA I’ll call Alice last night [not her real name]. She has worked in the facility for over a decade and is a few years from retirement. She works in what’s called the Dementia or “wandering” unit” because the veterans there – called “members” by the staff – have a tendency to wander off. There she helps the members do the things that we all do independently and take for granted in our lives – clothing,feeding, cleansing, and providing physical movement whether it be from place to place or from reclined position to seated position.
She said, “For a lot of them, we’re their families. Their family is not there. We are with them every day – an extension of their family…..You develop a rapport. There are people there that were there since before I got there.”
When she spoke to me she said she was “extremely tired”. She had worked a full shift that day, had worked a double shift the previous day, and was scheduled to work a double shift the next day.
She said, “I usually know how to pick up overtime to protect myself. They keep track of my last overtime. They take the highest number for forcing somebody [the highest number referring to the number of days since a worker's previous overtime event]. You try not to get forced. I’d say 90% of the overtime that is picked up is picked up to protect a weekend.” A “forced overtime” has been a sheet of paper delivered literally by hand to a worker 2 or 3 days ahead of the shift.
Alice says there is a new route to overtime – a second 72 hour list. “It seems we are being forced more often. One day I got a call I was being forced to do a PM shift that day and I was being forced on a Saturday as well.” The result was 2 overtime shifts in the 3 day period. Previously staff used one 30 day schedule and staff could select the overtime they would fill and then get forced shifts. The additional 2nd list allows a worker 72 hours to 6 hours notice to swap any forced overtime out.
By now I have had the overtime system explained to me by several people. It sounds like a game that is set up to make the players fail. More accurately, it sounds like a game set up to make those who stick with the union fail. In fact I have been told by 2 people that management tells CNAs they do not have a union anymore if they request that union representation be with them during a disciplinary meeting.
LTE stands for Limited Term Employee
There is a way to still work at King Veterans Home as a CNA and be completely free of forced overtime. A worker can quit and come back as an LTE or “Limited Term Employee”. I’ve heard that the LTEs also get first pick on shifts. However LTEs don’t get benefits and an LTE can not be in the union.
Alice said that becoming an LTE is the only way that people with small children can work at King adding, “How do you get a babysitter that will be available for that much overtime?” She said that most of the CNAs at King are female – typical of the profession.
After more staff become LTEs, overtime shifts go to remaining staff or to privately contracted staff that King brings on.
Margarete Worthington from Portage attended the recent staff listening session, took notes, and wrote a release for the press. Margarete Worthington is the Democratic Party candidate running for the 14th Wisconsin State Senate District seat against the incumbent, Republican Senator Luther Olsen. She said Olsen did not come to the listening session nor did any of his staff. While there she heard that 3 employees recently quit to work at a hospice. Another left to work at Kwik Trip where “it pays well” and the insurance is cheaper.
Ms. Worthington mentioned a situation that commonly causes overtime: one-on-one care. I asked her to clarify and she referred to notes from the listening session. “An employee gave the example where 6 CNAs supervise an area with 53 residents who have serious health concerns like dementia or mental illness. If an incident occurs, one of the CNAs would start working one-on-one with the resident who created the incident and the remaining 5 CNAs are left supervising 52 residents. Another CNA would be “forced” to work a double shift to cover for the CNA working in the one-on-one until someone else volunteered to work the extra one-on-one shifts. The overtime created by special one-on-one assignment continues until the situation with the resident is stabilized. The employee said the current staffing level is not high enough to keep incidents from happening and that residents and staff are getting hurt.”
From Worthington’s press release: “Employees clarified that while King staffing levels are based on resident numbers, patients with severe issues like drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD and mental health issues are being admitted, rather than first being stabilized at an appropriate treatment facility, leaving King’s staff severely overburdened. When one-on-one care is required, remaining staff to resident ratios soar, forcing double work shifts.”
According to his recent letter to Scott Walker, Scocos intentionally streamlined entry of new veterans to gain full residency and more money for King: “In July 2011, the WVH-King hired an experienced Admissions Director and processes were streamlined to expedite admissions.”
On the struggle for the CNAs to maintain their union
The CNA jobs for King are listed as “Non-Represented” meaning the union for that location is not state certified. But that does not mean there is no union.
WI Act 10 required that a majority of union members at a site vote to certify yearly and that they achieve an absolute majority. But in March of 2012 a federal court decision by William Conley reversed that and it also reversed a provision that prohibited automatic collection of dues from a worker’s paycheck.
However Wisconsin’s Dept. of Administration is still not collecting union dues through paychecks at King or anywhere else. When I confirmed this with Marty Biel this morning I also asked what the next step might be. He replied, “We have a motion in front of federal court.
The union. The future.
Troy Bauch is an AFSCME Council 24 Field Rep serving King staff. We talked by phone this morning. He told me about an hour and a half long conversation he had earlier today with Steve Janisch, a Human Resources Specialist with the WI VA. According to Bauch, Janisch said, “we no longer recognize the union” and “this is an unfortunate consequence of the current political environment”. Bauch then said to me, “They are not even supposed to express negativity toward the union. They are not supposed to express “union animus”. What Scott Walker did was whittle down what collective bargaining can be about but a union we do have.”
When I said to Troy Bauch that the union’s wages at King might not be a lot but the benefits were still better, he replied, “We’re having people quit and go to Quik Trip. How good can they be if Quik Trip has comparable for a lower premium?” He outlined the lay of the land that CNA’s see before them: about $500 paychecks biweekly, no ability right now to get a raise or better circumstances, new health insurance rates that are more expensive in January, increased pension contributions. “The longer you stay the less take home pay you’re going to get. That’s Walker’s master plan. ..In his plan workers with 25 years of seniority and 1 year of seniority make the same amount”.
“Now the tsunami is the 16 hour workday every other day”, Bauch said.
When I asked Alice if she thought things could improve for her, she replied that “it’ll get better” and cited a job fair last week where 187 people applied to King. But she then also talked about her dismay with the snail’s pace in hiring. “There are some people that were turned away [in the months previous] and they were told we are not hiring. We’ve never been full with no positions available in I can’t tell you how long. …This is why people do not have faith that they will get the help they need”.
One might take hope in a recent interview Scocos gave to WSAU.com in which he said there would be only 18 open positions by the end of the month, not 40 [as stated by AFSCME]. Bauch told me that even if Scocos were correct, there would still be 600 overtime shifts to fill up and added, “They [VA administrators] questioned me when I told them this and I said “It is true”. I have your schedules”.
Alice takes hope in a recent federal and state survey of King. “I think they were checking to see what the staffing was. … [the federal surveyors] were looking at our overtime. It’s rare that those surveys come like they did.”
She repeated the “it’ll get better” statement again, saying “I want to keep in my head that it will get better.”
Alice vowed to stay on in the union and work to rebuild it despite the obstacles. “We were here 75 years before Scott Walker. We’re going to be here another 75 years after Scott Walker”.
I asked her what was at the root of King’s staffing problems, and she responded, “I think they want us to not have enough state employees so they can privatize. They have already privatized the drivers here. To me it’s just a matter of time until they’re going to try that.”
A final note: each person who talked to me emphasized that they did not want to scare families and veterans off from going to King – they emphasized that Wisconsin’s largest nursing home is still a good place. But staffing problems at King need to be resolved quickly for the benefit of both care workers and the veterans they serve.
DISPUTE AT VETERANS HOME AT KING HEATING UP – Monday July 30, 2012 – Gilman Halsted
Nurses stressed by overtime – Waupaca Now July 25, 2012
WisEye video of Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs Meeting at King June 15
Cap Times Editorial
Address conditions at Wisconsin Veterans Home
Full Press Release on Scocos from Disabled American Veterans of WI
DAV POSITION ON THE NOMINATION OF FORMER SECRETARY JOHN SCOCOS AS THE NEW WDVA SECRETARY
Margarete Worthington for State Senate campaign web site, 14th District
Senator Luther Olsen, 14th District