Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday April 29th, 2016, 6:22pm

Chicagoland Nursing Home Workers Rally For A $15 Minimum Wage (VIDEO)

Nursing home workers in Illinois staged a series of protests this week as part of their push for an hourly minimum wage of $15.

The workers are represented by SEIU* Healthcare Illinois and employed by Infinity Healthcare Management.

Workers and their union allies picketed Wednesday through Friday outside nine Infinity Healthcare Management facilities in Chicago and the suburbs, including Bloomingdale, Cicero, Itasca, Niles and Oak Lawn. Nursing home employees rallied at their respective facilities to speak out about their "poverty" wages and working conditions.

SEIU Healthcare represents over 1,200 Infinity Healthcare Management workers whose labor contract expired in December. As part of contract talks, unionized workers at Infinity Healthcare Management's Chicagoland facilities are seeking an hourly minimum wage of $15 an hour.

The workers currently earn a base hourly wage of $10.25, said Keisha McLaurin, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Infinity Healthcare Management's Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. She and her coworkers protested Friday afternoon outside the nursing center, located at 735 W. Diversey Parkway on Chicago's North Side.

McLaurin, 41, has worked at the facility since February 2014, though she has been employed in the nursing home industry for the past 20 years. She currently earns $10.75 an hour because she has additional training duties at the Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. McLaurin said it is hard to make ends meet on that wage.

"It's a struggle," she said. "We're calling for a fair wage of $15. ... We just wanted to be treated with dignity and respect and to get a fair wage."

Workers said Infinity Healthcare Management has offered them a 30-cent pay raise during contract negotiations.

The proposed raise would essentially put Chicago nursing home workers a nickel above the city's minimum wage once it increases to $10.50 an hour this July. Chicago's hourly minimum wage is currently $10 and will go up gradually to $13 by 2019.

"In July, (the company is) gonna have to give us a quarter [raise] anyway because minimum wage goes up to $10.50 in Chicago," McLaurin explained. "So, you're basically only offering us a nickel, and it's really like a slap in the face."

McLaurin said working conditions at her facility are also difficult because the staffing is short.

"With 60 patients on the floor between four CNA's, that's like 15 people [per CNA] every single day, and it's a wear and tear on your body," she said.

Jessica Ambrose, 26, has worked at the Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center for the past five years.

"We work really hard to care for our residents, and we don't get paid enough," she said on the picket line.

Tiara McHenry, 24, another Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center worker, added: "We went to school, and unskilled laborers are making more money than us. It's not right, and it's unfair. We don't get the respect that we deserve. And everyday we are overworked and we are underpaid, and (we're) tired of it."

Here's more from the protest, including comments from McHenry and Ambrose: 

Nursing home workers do an important job and deserve to be paid at least $15 an hour, McLaurin argued.

"When you come into a facility, nine times out of ten, they're always short. We're always understaffed," she explained. "And all the work we have to do. You're showering people, you're shaving people, you're getting people out of bed, you're toileting people, you're feeding people, you're doing everything. Everything these people can't do for themselves, we have to do for them."

Messages seeking comment for this story were left with Infinity Healthcare Management.

Nationwide, direct-care nursing home workers earn a median hourly wage of $11.51. That's according to a recent national report from the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI), which found that inflation-adjusted hourly wages for nursing assistants have decreased 7 percent over the past decade.

As nursing assistant wages have decreased, demand for such services has increased and is on track to intensify, with the population of people older than 80 expected to triple by 2050, according to PHI.

But, as the report notes, nursing home employers are finding it hard to attract workers because of the industry's poor wages and job conditions.

"As a result of low pay, as well as insufficient staffing levels, inadequate training, and limited on-the-job support, nursing home employers can neither recruit nor retain qualified nursing assistants," the report reads. "Not only is turnover extremely high -- more than 50 percent of the workforce turns over annually -- but it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions."

Wages and working conditions should be improved for nursing home employees, PHI argues.

"Nursing homes must begin to invest in their workers today, to end the cycle of turnover and improve care -- but also to ensure that they are positioned to meet future demand for safe, 24-hour care," the report states.

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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