Looming union vote stirs up Eskaton Village | TheUnion.com

Looming union vote stirs up Eskaton Village

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

Karen Lorini, an Eskaton homeowner, and her poodle, Max, sit near a sign at her home supporting the creation of a union for Eskaton employees. The union election is set for June 3.

Tensions are escalating at Eskaton Village Grass Valley as the June 3 workers' union election date nears.

Management is insisting the union is not necessary.

"Eskaton has always supported our employees; they're our strongest asset," said Betsy Donovan, Eskaton's chief operating officer.

The luxury senior housing community, in business for more than 45 years, has never had a union, she said.

"We do not believe that bringing in a union is in their best interests," Donovan added. "We believe that if our employees have all the facts related to how they are affected by the union, and then they compare that to facts that the union is providing, that they would vote 'no.'"

Both residents and employees at Eskaton say that they have received letters from corporate management saying that a union is not necessary and hinting at problems if the union goes through. At least 15 Eskaton homeowners are supporting the union by posting signs at their homes.

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"I don't appreciate them treating people here — residents and employees — as if they don't have much worth," said Karen Lorini, who posted a sign on her lawn at her home in the 130-unit gated community portion of the complex. Even though she owns her home outright and pays a monthly $340 homeowners association fee, Lorini said she has received letters from Eskaton management that she considers intimidating, suggesting that residents will have to pay the price, through fee increases, if the union is approved.

"In the United States of America, we have a First Amendment right to voice our own opinions and choices by exercising our right to vote," Lorini said in an April 27 reply to a letter from Eskaton management. "You are using threats and intimidation tactics to interfere with a basic American process."

But Donovan said the mention of threats to residents was unfounded.

"Homeowners and residents are never being intimidated," Donovan said. "We just want to make sure that correct information is being shared."

As to the letters sent to workers, Donovan said that any letters that are sent to employees are because "we're clarifying information that's being provided to employees from the union. We want them to make sure they are making their decision based on facts."

On April 9, workers presented management with a petition indicating that an "overwhelming majority" of the approximately 78 employees have signed cards of intent to join the United Long Term Care Workers section of the Service Employees International Union and to hold an election. Employees interviewed in a April 10 story in The Union said they were under constant stress, were subject to changing and disruptive schedules, poor benefits and low pay, and they were forced to fill in to offset constant short staffing.

"I'm glad to see they're trying to make a change," said Carol Ornelas of Nevada City, who quit her job as a caregiver at Eskaton's assisted living section last May after 10 years.

"They need a voice."

Although Ornelas said she enjoyed interacting with the residents, she frequently had to do the work of two or three people when others called in sick, she said.

"When they said they were going on a four-days-on, two-days-off schedule, that was it for me," Ornelas said.

"I go to church and I have to have Sundays off."

Ornelas said management later decided not to go on the new schedule after all, but by then she had already decided to leave.

Earlier this month, employees and management testified before the National Labor Relations Board in Sacramento, according to Larry King, a campus patrol officer at Eskaton.

According to King, management is petitioning the NLRB to separate the campus patrol officers out from the rest of the Eskaton workers by characterizing them as guards and therefore not eligible for the long-term care workers section of SEIU. He said it appeared management was trying to "divide and conquer" and to delay the union election, originally scheduled for May 21.

Donovan declined comment on the NLRB hearing.

A decision on the guard issue is due in May, King said. Ornelas, meanwhile, said the "saddest part" to her is residents develop attachments with the caregivers but have to get used to new people when the caregivers leave due to poor conditions.

"Eskaton has been blessed to have caring, nurturing staff, but they have lost so many good people," Ornelas said. "The ones who are reliable shouldn't be treated the way they are, not only for them, but for the residents."

Lorini, 65. said she and the other residents just want to have a peaceful and stress-free living environment in their later years. Many of her neighbors don't want to "make waves" by complaining, Lorini said. But for her, happiness means getting involved when others around her are suffering.

"Before my husband (former newspaper columnist and management consultant John Lorini) died six years ago, he told me, 'I just want you to be happy,'" she said. "I'm just doing what he told me to do."

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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