Ian Todd | Those That Care About Care

On June 6th and 7th, Over one hundred employees of Guardian Angels Care Center in Elk River went on strike after 8 months of negotiation. What do they want? Respect. When do they want it? Well, you’ve heard the chants before. Some of the most significant complaints levied against Guardian Angels include insufficient staffing levels, the refusal of union rep access to the facility (and therefore, to union members), and the inconsistent and occasionally dangerous care given by temporary pool employees.

No facility receives a 5-star rating like Guardian Angels without quality care provided by quality staff. However, that quality staff has been overworked for years. Avis L., an employee of Guardian Angels, said, “In the seven years I’ve been here, we’ve never been fully staffed.” In order to augment the low levels, the facility brings in floating pool workers from temp agencies, and this has caused friction in several different ways. “They aren’t providing quality or consistent care,” reported Avis. She detailed two egregious mistakes made by some pool employees. One resident who requires assistance in taking her medication in the evening was found sleeping on her pain pill the next morning. This happened twice on separate occasions. Another resident was given a pain patch meant for another resident by two pool employees. The resident protested the mistake to no avail, and the intended recipient of the patch simply went without that day.

For the SEIU employees on strike, knowing their residents is more than just their job. As Gladys M. stated, “I like the residents; they like us. They’re so friendly… We learn who they are and what they like.” For many of the permanent employees, the residents become like family, and this relationship ensures that each resident gets the consistency of care they need by being recognized as individuals. When the turnover rate on employees is high, those relationships never form, and that 5-star rating will eventually drop along with the quality of care.

However, the friction doesn’t end at less than ideal care. The pool workers are also paid a good deal more than the permanent staff. Employees at Guardian Angels typically make less than $15 an hour, but the pool employees make close to twice that amount. The discrepancy is reflective of the fact that pool employees are expected to be able to perform duties at several different locations, and their schedules may prove to be chaotic at best. This jack of all trades approach to assisted living leaves some of the trainers at Guardian Angels a bit upset. The pool employees need facility-specific training, but training a pool employee does not earn the qualified trainers the extra 50 cents per hour bonus training new permanent staff would. In the end, some employees feel like they are continually training an ever-rotating cast of temporary workers without ever increasing the overall level of expertise in the building and without receiving proper compensation for the extra work. Worst of all, some of the permanent employees, after realizing the discrepancy in pay, have decided to quit working for Guardian Angels directly to pursue the pool jobs.

Avis is under the impression that there is only one responsible way to combat this trend, “To attract people, you have to offer a competitive wage.” The offer they’re hoping for is a simple 3% wage increase and the right of SEIU union representatives to speak and work with the union employees inside the facility. Helen M., a resident since September of 2018, believes in the cause of these union workers and joined them on the picket line. “I want to be there, too!” she said. Helen agrees that the care she receives from permanent staff outclasses the care she’s received from temporary staff. She said that the employees are good to her, but the pool employees, “they just don’t know what they’re doing.”

There’s always a spirit of hope at the picket line; there’s confidence that through action and organization, positive change will come. But there’s also fear of retaliation. Some organizers of the strike feel as though they graduated from relative obscurity in the eyes of Guardian Angels’ administration to everyone knowing their names. “It feels like we’re being watched.” Some fear that in the end, Guardian Angels may choose to lower SEIU staffing even further and rely more heavily on the pool workers. When asked why they fight despite the possibility of a negative outcome, the answers came swiftly and confidently. From Jody W., “It’s the right thing to do for our residents… It gives us a voice.” From Carrie R., “To stand up for our residents’ rights and for my coworkers’.” From Gladys M., “We need to support each other. We’re all part of the team.”

Ian Todd