Nursing home advocates demand more boro staff

By Betsy Scheinbart

Nurses, patients and family members spoke out last week about the major staffing shortages in Queens’ nursing homes and asked state Assemblymen William Scarborough (D-St. Albans) and Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) for help in securing more state funds for such non-profit facilities.

Jamaica’s Margaret Tietz Center for Nursing Care hosted a health care education forum, attended by the president of the facility’s residents’ council.

New York’s health and human service union, 1199 Service Employees International Union, had a strong presence at the forum, where members wore purple shirts reading: “Safe Staffing Saves Lives.”

Nursing homes have lost $1 billion in state funds over the past five years due to state budget cuts, said Kenneth Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Tietz center.

Brown said 40 percent of nursing homes in the New York metropolitan area are operating with a 10 percent or higher staff shortage. The average staff shortage is 15 percent.

“Together we hope the message gets clearly back to Albany that we need some help,” Brown said.

Jo Ann Shapiro, the chief of staff for state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Far Rockaway), noted that most people who have family members in nursing homes just assume that there are mandated staff levels in the facilities, but that is simply not the case.

The day before the health forum 475 workers at the Silvercrest Nursing Home in Briarwood went on strike to protest the short staffing. Hundreds of 1199 SEIU members formed a picked line outside the facility, demanding that the home’s management resume salary and benefits negotiations.

The state assemblymen opened the forum by calling for an increase in state funds to non-profit nursing homes.

Scarborough and Cohen said the state Assembly proposed an increase in funds of $100 million to non-profit nursing homes in the state, but the state Senate and Gov. George Pataki did not support it.

“We in the Assembly are aware and very concerned about the crisis of staff shortages,” Scarborough said, adding that the forum provided an opportunity to try to come up with a way the problem could be alleviated.

Mary Monroe, a certified nurse’s aide at the Midway Nursing Home in Maspeth, described how difficult it is to care for patients when there are only two nurses on a floor with 40 patients.

“I don’t call it a crisis, I call it an epidemic,” she said of the staffing shortages. “We need time to give proper care. We cannot give it without staff.”

Monroe said the management of her nursing home tells the nurses to do their best and not admit to the patients’ relatives that they are short-staffed. But when relatives complain to the nurses, Monroe said they have no choice but to admit they are short.

“You should have the time to sit and talk with your patients,” Monroe said.

Joseph D’Amico, president of the residents’ council at Tietz, agreed with Monroe.

“We count on them as family,” D’Amico said of the nurses. “Some residents are not self-sufficient, but they might try to be if they feel the staff does not have time for them, which leads to accidents.”

Health problems such as incontinence and bedsores occur at a higher rate when nursing homes are short-staffed, said John Seals, vice president of 1199 SEIU.

Brown praised his staff at Tietz and other nurse’s aides for their dedication to helping nursing home patients. He emphasized that he is not only concerned with his patients’ quality of life but also with his nurses’ lives.

Carol Towery, a certified nurse’s aide at the Ocean Promenade in Rockaway Beach, said she and her co-workers suffer back and wrist injuries from lifting an average of 9,760 pounds a day by turning and cleaning patients.

“Your muscles are so sore sometimes at the end of the day you can’t even lift your arm,” Towery said.

Cohen asked how much certified nurse’s aides make and the answers he got varied from $8 to $12 an hour, depending on the nursing homes. The wages varied even among the union members.

Chris Douglas, the assistant director of nursing at Tietz, said many nurses work two jobs in order to make ends meet.

“The pay should be high enough that you just need one job,” Douglas said.

Brown said he is worried that nursing homes would lose their staff to higher or equally paid retail jobs.

“I cannot replace the quality even if I replace the body,” Brown said of nursing staff changes.

Both assemblymen said they had gained a valuable perspective on the staffing shortage from the forum and intended to bring that information back to their colleagues.

Scarborough noted that he and other assembly members had been supportive in the past and the real battle lies ahead in the Republican-controlled state Senate and with the Republican governor.

“We know you need money — we have been there for you in the past,” Scarborough said. “Every time there were financial cuts they would have been worse without our fight.”

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.