‘Strike for Black Lives’: Nursing home workers rally amid COVID-19 crisis

By: - July 19, 2020 6:20 am

SEIU nursing home workers | SEIU photo

Union workers at several metro Detroit nursing homes plan to strike Monday as they face significant health risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, SEIU members said. 

“Here in Detroit, us nursing home workers are at the center of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Trece Andrews, who works at Regency at St. Clair Shores, a long-term care facility. “We’re putting our lives on the line every single day without proper PPE [personal protection equipment], paid sick days or fully-paid testing because facility owners treat us as disposable, not essential. Thousands of workers and residents have needlessly lost their lives. I’ve seen firsthand how this virus is devastating the Black community, exposing the systemic racism that has always existed.”

The effort is being billed as a “Strike for Black Lives.” It will be a work stoppage at Hartford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Lodge at Taylor, Regency at Taylor, Villa at Great Lakes Crossing, Villa at City Center and Regency at St. Claire Shores. The strike will culminate with a 2 p.m. action at the Hartford facility. 

More than 50,000 nursing home residents and workers across the country have died from COVID-19, according to a Wall Street Journal report


The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports that as of Friday, that the state has 7,508 confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents and 3,581 among staff in long-term care facilities.The department reports 1,983 deaths among long-term care residents and 22 staff deaths.   

About one-third of the coronavirus deaths in Michigan have occurred in nursing homes. Michigan ranks 11th among states and the District of Columbia in the number of nursing homes deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Healthcare Safety Network. New Jersey; Massachusetts; Connecticut; Rhode Island; Delaware; Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; Maryland; Louisiana; and New York rank ahead of Michigan.

The top 10 states for cases are New York, California, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, per the New York Times. Michigan has slipped to 13th after an extended lockdown in response to being one of the hardest hit states during the spring.

Residents and staff at long-term care facilities make up about 45% of national coronavirus-related deaths. Only seven states — Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and New York — have ongoing, required testing of residents, staff or both, according to a Stateline report.  

Out of the 45 nursing homes in Michigan that have reported the most deaths linked to COVID-19, nearly half — 22 — have been cited by state inspectors in the last four months according to a Detroit News review of hundreds of pages of state records. Forty percent of total coronavirus deaths, which includes nursing homes and other sites, in Michigan are African American, yet Blacks compose just 14% percent of the state’s population.


Workers demand protections

Workers are calling for increased safety protections such as masks and gloves. 

They also want a $15 minimum wage for all service workers, an $18 wage for certified nursing assistants, an end to mandatory overtime and short-staffing, and improved benefits such as health care and paid sick leave. Michigan’s current minimum wage is $9.65 per hour. 

SEIU has been working to negotiate dozens of contracts with nursing homes in metro Detroit. It represents 66 nursing homes and more than 6,000 nursing home workers in Michigan. There are approximately 444 nursing homes in the state. 

Nursing homes have The Trump administration in recent months has pushed for a suspension of federal rules for homes that receive Medicaid and that has relaxed training requirements for nursing home staff. 

Prioritized nursing home testing began in April for every resident, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has reported. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday signed executive orders to protect nursing home residents and staff from the spread of COVID-19. She also created a bipartisan task force to address the issue.

“We have taken great strides here in Michigan to protect families from the spread of COVID-19 and lower the chance of a second wave, but it’s crucial that we stay vigilant and work around the clock to protect our most vulnerable residents and those who have dedicated their lives to caring for them,” said Whitmer. 


“These actions will help our state protect more nursing home residents and staff in the case of a second wave. Moving forward, I will work closely with the task force and with everyone who wants to help us protect our most vulnerable communities, the heroes on the front lines, and our families from this virus.”

The Michigan Nursing Homes COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force will be charged, Whitmer said, with analyzing relevant data on the threat of COVID-19 in nursing homes, and making recommendations to her on improving data quality, and releasing periodic reports on its findings and recommendations. The task force must produce an action plan by Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, the National Governors Association, American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living have sounded off on what they describe as “imminent outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.”

“With the major spikes of COVID cases in many states across the country, we are very concerned this trend will lead to a dramatic increase in cases in long-term facilities,” their letter reads.


An independent research by Harvard Medical School, Brown University’s School of Public Health and University of Chicago showed the level of COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community was the top factor in outbreaks in nursing homes.

Political dimension

Over the last couple months, there’s been a growing political debate on the issue. The GOP-led Legislature has been looking into COVID-19 and its presence in nursing homes across the state. A special bicameral panel on the Whitmer administration’s coronavirus actions has convened several hearings on nursing homes.

The Michigan Senate has passed SB 956, sponsored by Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.), that would require the state health department to identify facilities for the exclusive care of nursing home residents with COVID-19.

Some Republicans have blamed coronavirus spread in nursing homes primarily on Whitmer. They have argued that she should have acted sooner to provide directives that could have prevented COVID-19 spread such as mandatory testing. 


Attorney General Dana Nessel last month sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in response to its request that she investigate Whitmer’s executive order relating to nursing homes.  

“While I appreciate and share your concern for the impact of COVID-19 on the health and safety of our elderly population, I am curious as to why similar requests have not been sent to states with Republican governors,” Nessel wrote.

As for the SEIU members, their strike effort next Monday is about fairness.

“I am striking for better working conditions across the board,” said Robert Ruff, a certified nursing assistant at Regency in Taylor. “Conditions at some of the nursing homes are not the best — they could do much better.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.