2006-03-24 / Community

Nursing Home Employees Fight For Medical Benefits

Lisa Noel, center - in white skirt, and other members of 1199 SEIU gather outside the Resort Nursing Home on Beach 68 Street last month to bring attention to, what they say, is their employer's lack of payment to the union's benefit fund.Lisa Noel, center - in white skirt, and other members of 1199 SEIU gather outside the Resort Nursing Home on Beach 68 Street last month to bring attention to, what they say, is their employer's lack of payment to the union's benefit fund. By Miriam Rosenberg

Contributing Editor

Lisa Noel, who is expecting a child in June, should not have to worry about medical coverage. She is a member of 1199 SEIU and her union benefit fund is supposed to take care of her medical expenses. Yet, Noel currently finds herself uninsured because her employer Resort Nursing Home is five months behind in making payments to the fund - a total of $276,034.

"My doctor told me it will cost $3,500 to deliver my baby," Noel told The Wave last month. "That's just the doctor's fee alone, and I am a high-risk pregnancy. I have no coverage."

The union blames the nursing home for the termination of health coverage.

"These members, for lack of payment [to our benefit fund] have no benefits," said Floreta Jernigan, a union organizer at a gathering of some of Resort's 145 union workers outside the nursing home in February.

Union organizer Anne Powe speaks to 1199 members outside the nursing home in February.Union organizer Anne Powe speaks to 1199 members outside the nursing home in February. The nursing home's attorney, Joel Cohen, called the union's charges of the non-payment by his client false.

"My client has continuously made payments," said Cohen.

According to papers supplied to the newspaper by Cohen, Resort Nursing Home has paid over $575,621 since March 31, 2005. The problem, according to a high-ranking official at the benefit fund, is the monies paid were for back months. The last recorded payment, made on January 26, was for September 2005 benefits.

"They have not paid for October through February," said an official with the benefit fund.

Cohen contends that the nursing home is "maybe three months behind" and told The Wave on Tuesday that there have been payments made since the January check, yet he would not provide proof of these payments.

Also on Tuesday, the communication office of the fund confirmed, through its director of Contracts and Collections, that the fund has not received any payments from Resort Nursing Home since the January 26 check.

"We are behind in contributions like everyone else," said Cohen, who attributes the arrears to the financial pressures in the health care industry.

He also said that the union is using the health benefit issue to "rile up" its members because they are in negotiations for a new contract and charged that the nursing home offered to sign an interim agreement to cover health insurance but was told by the union that all issues had to be settled first.

At press time, the union did not return calls asking for information on that agreement.

Yet, the representative for the fund's communications office, who said the benefit fund and the union are two separate entities, said not everyone is behind in payments. There are some facilities that are minimally delinquent in contributions, other who are move severely delinquent.

Seven nursing homes are currently considered delinquent. Of those, three have been sent notices that benefits will be discontinued in April if payments are not made.

The union (1199 SEIU - Greater Health Care Employees) and the employers (Greater New York Nursing Home Association) make up the trustees who administer the benefits fund.

A letter is sent to any employer who is one month late in making contributions to the fund. The matter is taken to arbitration when the employer is two months late, and upon being three months late the employer receives a warning that coverage will be terminated in 30 days. After four months of non-payment, coverage is terminated. Employees receive a 30-day warning when benefits are about to be cut off.

Mitra Behroozi, the executive director for the 1199 SEIU Benefit and Pension Funds explained, via email, the fund's policy.

"Unfortunately, Resort Nursing Home has repeatedly failed to pay for benefits already provided, which caused [benefits] to be terminated," said Behroozi. "Under the law and the policy set by our labor-management Board of Trustees, we are unable to maintain benefits when an employer becomes extremely delinquent. We hope that Resort Nursing Home will make good on its arrears so that health benefits for their workers can be restored. We will continue to work with them towards that goal."

For Resort Nursing Home employees' health insurance to be reinstated, the facility must pay the entire $276,034 or agree to pay what is due each month as well as paying toward what is owed. Both sides have submitted paperwork to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming unfair labor practices.

The NLRB found Resort Nursing Home guilty of unfair labor practices in September 2003. The decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals in November 2004.

In 2001, the nursing home failed to execute a collective bargaining agreement made between the union and the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, because the owners of the home became dissatisfied with the Association and hired Cohen in 2001 to act for them in such matters. However, the Association was not notified of this decision in writing until January 31 and February 11 of 2002. Official collective bargaining negotiations, with most of the details already worked out, began January 23, 2002. Written notices, such as the one from Resort, is supposed to be given at least 10 months before expiration of prior collective bargaining agreements.

The Nursing Home was ordered to abide by the agreement, pay their employees any back wages and benefits due to them under the agreement, and pay monies to the benefits fund required under the new contract.

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