Fed up with stress, low wages, short staffing, taxing schedules and poor benefits, an “overwhelming majority” of workers at Eskaton Village senior housing community in Grass Valley have signed cards authorizing a union to represent them and to hold an election in six weeks.
Workers’ representatives on Wednesday presented a petition to organize under the United Long Term Care Workers section of Service Employees International Union to Steven Harms, Eskaton Village Grass Valley administrator, with copies sent to Eskaton’s corporate office in Carmichael and the National Labor Relations Board.
“They get to have all the power, and if we don’t like it, we have to walk,” said Larry King, a campus patrol officer at the luxury senior community in explaining the motivation for the actions.
“If we go in as an individual (to bring up an issue), they say, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,’” King added. “That’s why we’re going in as a group.”
Harms, contacted Wednesday, declined all comment, referring calls to the corporate office. Betsy Donovan, chief operating officer, left a return message but she could not be reached when the call was returned later on Wednesday.
If 50 percent plus one of the community’s 78 workers vote to establish a union shop at Grass Valley, it would be the first in Eskaton’s chain of 44 senior housing facilities in Northern California and one of the first SEIU-ULTCW local shops in Nevada County, according to union spokespeople.
Eskaton operates three levels of senior housing care in Grass Valley: 130 private homes with an estimated value of around $300,000 each; 87 independent living apartments that rent at an estimated $4,500 to $5,500 per month; and 57 assisted living units that can cost as much as $10,000 per month for a double room, according to the workers.
Most workers said they either work a second job or rely on a spouse’s income to pay their bills. Kitchen workers at Eskaton start at $8.29 per hour, campus patrol at $9.12 per hour and resident care associates at $9.48 per hour.
According to King, the pay rates are much less than similar Eskaton facilities in Sacramento.
“Eskaton’s attitude was our way or the highway,” King said. “Three of us met with the administrator after each shift was cut a half hour.
“One had been there 10 years, another three years,” King added. “The administrator refused to discuss the schedule, saying, ‘There are plenty of people out there who are willing to work this schedule.’”
Emily Pocock, a resident care associate, said she works 37 hours per week but receives no benefits, such as paid time off, because she is considered “on call.” Another employee, a receptionist, works fewer hours but is considered full time and receives benefits, she said.
“It’s all cronyism,” King said.
Pocock and medical technician Kathy Terra said that the “paid time off” is granted but “they won’t let you take it,” Terra said.
“One of the resident care associates asked to take her PTO for one day in June, but she was turned down,” Terra said. “They said she couldn’t take that day.”
“A lot of us are just there for the residents,” said lead wait staffer Rebecca Justice. “If it wasn’t for the residents, we’d be gone.”
She said the stress hurts most because “I have to meet with residents every day, and it’s hard not to break down in front of them.
“Residents need happy employees that they know, that stay there,” she said. “They don’t need to have strangers all the time (from high turnover).”
Employees interviewed Wednesday said they hope the union will allow them to keep working at Eskaton instead of quitting, as many others have done. Even though the starting salaries are just slightly above the $8 per hour minimum wage, employees said they would like to stay if they could be treated with respect and their concerns would be taken seriously.
“I love the residents,” said Rae Lynn Glass. “I want to fight (for the union) because of the residents.”
King said a group of eight resident care associates walked out two months after he started at Eskaton in 2012. Two workers were hospitalized for stress after management announced last December that 25-percent pay cuts would go into effect Jan. 1, King said.
Rae Lynn Glass said her husband went on stress leave on Christmas Day for two months. When he came back, he was confronted immediately by his chief antagonist.
“The person was back in his face,” Glass said. “He mouthed off and they told him to go.”
Glass said she then had to put her husband, who is now on disability, on her insurance policy at a cost of $400 per month. That was under Eskaton’s pricey self-insurance plan that the workers must pay for themselves.
“Enough is enough,” Terra said. “Any consequences that come down (because of union organizing) can’t be nearly as bad as our work environment.”
Turnover is so high, the workers said, that the full-time employees are working overtime just to keep things going.
A lot of the kitchen workers — many of whom are much younger — call in sick or come in late, but they don’t face any consequences, Justice said. Instead, Justice, a full-time senior employee, said she is punished by having to work extra hours and come in on her day off to cover for them.
“It’s really unfair,” Justice said.
Medical technician Teri DeMunck said she often has to cover for two units — or 17 rooms — by herself. That includes not just pulling out and delivering medications but also answering phones, receiving faxes and handling residents’ service requests.
“Working with a short staff is setting us up for errors,” DeMunck said.
Housekeeper Christine Makiney said she has worked at Eskaton since 2008 but feels compelled to take action now because she is upset about the mistreatment of others.
“I can’t even tell you the issues of why I’m here (with the union organizers),” Makiney said, adding that she could not be more specific because she was told certain issues in confidence.
“The emotional consequences of being there offer me no recourse,” she added. “I want to give people a voice, make management approachable and able to deal with residents’ and employees’ needs.”
Pocock agreed.“I just want a happier working environment for everyone,” she said. “Happier for the workers and happier for the residents.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.