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Cedar Haven nurses strike, but struggle with leaving residents

Written by Daniel Walmer and Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News | Oct 20, 2017 6:51 PM


Cedar Haven Nursing Home members of the AFSCME Local 2732 went on strike at noon on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.  (Photo: Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

Unionized nurses at Cedar Haven Healthcare Center walked out at noon on Friday, battling the home's owner over benefits and paid time off.

While the strike did not result in an interruption of care, for many of the nurses it was hard to say goodbye to the residents they serve.

"It was heartwrenching. I've been crying since 11 a.m. this morning because I knew I was turning my keys over to somebody and I didn't know who. Because these residents are my family," said licensed nurse practitioner Lindsay Brensinger, fighting back tears. "A resident this morning gave me a hug and told me she wasn't going to let me go because she knew that I'd be leaving at noon."

Yet Brensinger and other nurses insisted they had no choice because of the contract owner Stone Barn Holdings implemented over the objections of nurses. Under the contract, employee contributions to health care rose substantially and guaranteed paid time off was reduced to a maximum of 15 days, with many employees receiving less. 

Brensinger would lose 13 days of paid time off under the contract, she said. Nurses also won't get paid for holidays if they don't work them, said LPN Lynn Landis.

Under the new health care plan for Landis and her husband, she would have to pay premiums of more than $900 per month and would still have a $5,000 deductible, she said.

Nurses from US Nursing Corporation arrived in time to take the place of the striking nurses (the nurses had been required to give a 10-day notice before striking).

Chas Blalack, a principal owner in Stone Barn Holdings, did not immediately respond Friday afternoon to a phone call and an email requesting comment on whether he was able to maintain typical staffing levels. However, he previously said that his company was "committed to making sure any possible strike would not adversely impact our residents.

Around the perimeter, meanwhile, nurses belonging to American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2732 held signs with messages like "be fair to those who care." Chants included "patients before profit" and "five stars because we care," a reference to the nursing home's five-star rating from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

There was a presence from South Lebanon Township police. Chief Michael Lesher said he wanted to make sure things stayed peaceful and his biggest concern was the possibility of people being hit by cars. He asked some protesters to move off the road and onto the sidewalk because of those concerns.

Cedar Haven nurses threatened to strike in 2016 but the work stoppage was averted when employees narrowly approved a contract. This year, however, Stone Barn Holdings not only asked employees to give up too much but was "bargaining in bad faith" by implementing the new contract before reaching a deal with the union, according to AFSCME council director Steve Mullen.

Mullen said he did not know how long the strike would last.

In letters sent to employees during contract negotiations, Blalack said the changes to health care were driven by double-digit premium increases from insurance companies. The reduction in paid time off was due in part to a large number of call-offs from employees, he wrote.

The home is also struggling to adjust financially to a reduction in the state of Pennsylvania's reimbursement to Cedar Haven for Medicaid patients, which comprise 86 percent of the home's residents, he wrote.

Striking nurses weren't buying Blalack's explanation.

"I love my residents. They're my second family, and (it's hard) to walk out knowing there's people in there who don't know them and can't provide the care that we can," said LPN Sara Rhodes, who was visibly upset. "We should be in there, but under better circumstances. We deserve better."

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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