With competition heating up in New York’s 2022 gubernatorial race, several candidates made a stop Wednesday evening at a rally in Times Square held by the health care union 1199SEIU, which represents some 250,000 members across the state.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and State Attorney General Letitia James all spoke at the event. Each of the Democratic candidates pledged their support for workers who were demonstrating over stalled contract negotiations with for-profit nursing homes. In recent weeks, the union has warned that some 33,000 members employed at 250 nursing homes in New York City and the surrounding areas could go on strike if they don’t get the pay raises and benefits they’re requesting.

Hochul opened her speech to the crowd of health care workers by calling them “God’s angels here on Earth.” Like other speakers, she acknowledged the sacrifices nursing home staff made during the pandemic.

“You were surrounded by death and misery,” she said. “You still showed up every single day. All you’re asking for in return is not to just be called somebody’s heroes. All you’re saying is, ‘Just give me a little respect.’”

James, meanwhile, reminded the crowd of her office’s nursing home investigation, which found that home directors and government officials could have done more to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the long-term care facilities and that resident deaths were undercounted by the state. “We know that during that period, there were those who blamed you and that wasn’t right,” she told the crowd. “We know it was the policies of government that failed us as a city and as a state.”

Williams, who ran a close race against Hochul for lieutenant governor in 2018, got the most passionate introduction of all of the candidates. Lorraine Brown-Zanders, a vice president at 1199 who was co-emceeing the event, called him “a longtime champion for working people and our issues.”

“Jumaane is always ready to join a picket line,” Brown-Zanders said. “Anywhere working-class people have a problem, Jumaane is there.”

Labor union members rally outside of 1199SEIU’s midtown Manhattan offices.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who may also run for governor, was absent from the lineup. But de Blasio secured 1199’s endorsement in his then-longshot run for mayor in 2013 and again in 2017.

This bid for union support comes as James, Williams and Hochul all start to campaign in earnest ahead of the June primary. Hochul, who has said she intends to keep the post she inherited when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped down, is working to gain an edge through aggressive fundraising efforts. But endorsements from major unions can also have an impact. Political experts commenting on the city’s recent mayoral race noted that unions can mobilize their members to phone-bank and door-knock, in addition to potentially delivering their votes.

While courting the union vote may be a smart political strategy, it’s somewhat awkward for Hochul to take sides in this particular labor dispute because she now has significant power over how nursing homes are funded and the policies that govern them. Even at for-profit facilities, nursing home care is largely paid for with public dollars that flow through Medicaid, the state-run health insurance program for people with low incomes. Nursing home industry groups have long lamented that Medicaid doesn’t pay enough to ensure that facilities are well-staffed and that they can give employees competitive salaries and benefits.

“What we need is a rate increase,” Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Care Facilities Association, told WNYC/Gothamist in a recent interview about the contract negotiations with 1199. “The state of New York for 15 years has not provided a Medicaid rate increase for nursing homes.” Hanse noted that during the pandemic, the state actually cut Medicaid rates by 1.5% across the board.

Cuomo was responsible for that decision but soon Hochul will have to decide how to manage the Medicaid budget, which now tops $80 billion. She will also be in a position to set policies that influence whether the long-term trend of for-profit companies taking over nonprofit nursing homes continues. Some for-profit facilities have high overall quality ratings, but studies have found that they are more likely to be understaffed, potentially putting residents at risk.

What’s At Stake For Nursing Home Workers and Residents

The union 1199SEIU is currently involved in negotiations with two groups representing a total of about 250 for-profit nursing homes. Both contracts expired at the end of September.

Across all of the nursing homes involved in the negotiations, more than 41,000 residents could be impacted if there’s a strike, based on an estimate of the average number of residents per nursing facility statewide.

Over the past couple of weeks, the 33,000 employees covered by those contracts have voted on whether to allow the union to authorize a strike if negotiations continue to stall. The results of the vote have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, workers have picketed in front of a handful of nursing homes in New York City and neighboring counties.

About two dozen employees and supporters rallied outside of the Linden Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in East New York, Brooklyn on November 1st.

“We just need a fair contract to reflect all the sacrifices that we went through during the pandemic,” said Marcell Grant, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Linden and 1199 delegate who has been sitting in on contract negotiations via Zoom. “For the two years of the pandemic, we have been holding it down while management was at home with their families.”

Grant and other CNAs covered by the 1199 contracts currently earn a little over $17 per hour. They assist residents with daily necessities such as eating, bathing, going to the bathroom and moving around.

Grant said during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York last year, she had to seclude herself from her family. At the time, Linden Center workers called out management for not doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus and for only offering bonuses to some workers rather than providing universal hazard pay.

“We wrapped dead bodies almost every day,” said Grant. “To see them treating us unfairly--it is just overwhelming.”

The union is negotiating three-year contracts and is asking for a 2% raise in the first year, with a 3% raise each of the following years. It’s also seeking a $3,000 bonus in recognition of employees’ work during the pandemic. Those terms were included in the contract 1199 agreed upon in September with the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes, which represents about 90 nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes across the state.

“We care about the residents, but if we don't get what we want, it's sad to say that we have to strike and they would have to probably suffer for it,” Grant said at the November 1st picket.

Richard Mollott, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, which advocates on behalf of New York nursing home residents and their families, said he had seen strikes at individual facilities in recent years, but none on the scale being proposed by 1199.

Mollott said he would support the move if the union determines it’s necessary, reasoning that better pay and working conditions could, in turn, contribute to better care for residents.

“I'm cognizant that this can obviously put a strain on the residents’ access to care if there was a strike,” he said. “But if the nursing homes are aware that a strike is coming or might be coming, it's incumbent upon them to take the steps necessary to either bring in temps or to transfer their residents to a safe location.”