'People over profits': Visalia nursing home employees demand better working conditions

Westgate Gardens Care Center employees on Thursday carried signs and chanted calls for hazard pay and better treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 outbreaks in local nursing homes have been one of the main drivers of Tulare County COVID-19 infections.

Westgate nurses and employees say they don't get paid as much as their peers at Linwood Meadows and Redwood Springs, two other Visalia homes that have been ravaged by large-scale coronavirus outbreaks.

Though each facility is independently owned and operated, all three share a consultant in Carlsbad-based Plum Healthcare Group, a spokesperson said. 

Westgate has been largely spared by COVID-19 so far. Employees at the facility say that's because they've acted carefully and gone above and beyond CDC and state regulations to protect the residents, who they love like their own families.

But employees say they are now being punished for their care and attention to detail. Because an outbreak hasn't taken hold at Westgate, employees claim management won't give them hazard pay, hotel accommodations, and other benefits that Redwood and Linwood have received.

Westgate Gardens Care Center staff held a vigil at the nursing home, calling for boosted pay and better treatment during the coronavirus pandemic. Joshua Yeager

Westgate Gardens Care Center staff held a vigil at the nursing home, calling for boosted pay and better treatment during the coronavirus pandemic. Joshua Yeager

"A lot of us are super close to our residents; we care for them and treat them like family," said Tammy Peer, a nurse in the COVID unit. 

Peer can't even shower and sanitize after a shift until she clocks out, she said. Other employees worries about potentially bringing the virus home to her family but Westgate won't help her cover hotel costs either, they said.

"We're not asking Plum Healthcare to do the right thing and pay (Westgate employees) for the hazardous conditions they work in every day," said Shirley Todmanmcneese, an organizer with Services Employee International Union, which represents care workers at Westgate.

Westgate management says hazard pay is not a part of the union's contract.

"Our existing collective bargaining agreement (with SEIU) dictates our dedicated employees' compensation. No provisions for hazardous pay exist," Westgate Administrator Benjamin Carter said in a statement.

"In the meantime, we appreciate that on-duty staff members remain at their stations attending to all our residents, both in and outside the COVID isolation unit, while a handful of off-duty members and other healthcare professionals exercised their right to free speech on public property."

Staff at Redwood Springs and Linwood Meadows were offered “hero bonuses” if they were able and willing to come to work during the COVID outbreak. There have been more than 270 cases and 39 deaths between the two facilities, including patients and staff.

By comparison, Westgate has six infected residents and one death. No staff has tested positive for the virus.

Peer said the coronavirus has still been tough on residents, families, and employees alike. With the facility on lockdown, many families rely on nurses at Westgate as the sole window into their loved one's lives, a role that Peer says she's "blessed to be a part of" even though it can be emotionally exhausting work. 

"Families see the news; they see what this virus can do to our vulnerable residents," she said. "Now, you're the counselor. You're all these families have."

Residents of the nursing home and their families turned out to support Westgate employees and participate in the evening vigil. Among them was Annabelle Marquez whose mom has lived at Westgate for four years; for her, the vigil is personal.

"The employees really care, they're like family," she said. "My mom sees the staff as her 'mijo,' and the nurses get to know some of the residents better than we do as the family by virtue of caring for them around the clock."

Marquez hasn't seen her mom since the facility went on lockdown beginning March 8 to protect vulnerable residents from the coronavirus. 

"It's been a difficult time. It depresses my mom that I can't see her every week," she said. "I hope it's over soon so I can visit her again."

In the meantime, Marquez says Westgate staff should be "recognized and compensated for their labor," especially those working in the sensitive COVID-19 ward. 

"We're not going to take our foot off the gas," Todmanmcneese said. "The risk remains the same."

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.

[This story was originally published by Visalia Times Delta].

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