Health center workers ask commissioners to aid their quest for more information on staffing

As the clock ticks down to the day the Washington County Health Center is transferred to a for-profit entity, employees discuss cuts in work hours, increasing health insurance premiums and looming uncertainty.

Zelda Pirt, a health center food service worker who was hired by Washington County in 2006, said at the commissioners’ meeting Thursday, “We’ve been kept in the dark through this whole process,” referring to the sale of the health center to a private owner. Photo:Barbara Miller/Observer-Reporter

Workers at Washington County Health Center said they will learn if they have been rejected for employment by the new owner only two days before the sale of the facility is formalized.

The new target date for the 288-bed nursing home in Chartiers Township to change ownership is Friday, Oct. 20, nearly three weeks later than expected. The $26.9 million transaction with Premier Healthcare Management LLC of Philadelphia has been in the works since June, but applying for jobs with the privatized health center began only recently.

Premier has confirmed to Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA that it will be outsourcing management of three departments – laundry, dietary and housekeeping – to Healthcare Services Group Inc. of Bensalem, Bucks County.

A news release from the union states that all workers in those departments have been asked to reapply for their jobs, but the firm is “not offering any details on potential changes to their wages, benefits or job conditions.”

Leeann Howell, a licensed practical nurse for 22 years, said working hours for the rank and file are being reduced, while health insurance costs are rising, and more than half the hourly workers are expected to take a pay cut.

“Salaried staff are keeping everything, a retroactive 3 percent raise and better severance package,” she told the county commissioners Thursday morning. “They did not have to bargain. It was given to them by the county. This is nothing but a slap in the face to the hourly employees who do direct patient care. The county still has time to give a better package to the loyal and faithful union members that stayed through this heart-wrenching process of being sold.

“You, the commissioners, can do a lot better than what we have seen so far,” she continued before receiving a standing ovation from her co-workers, many of whom were wearing purple SEIU garb.

A few minutes later, the commissioners voted, as presented during Wednesday’s agenda-setting session, to give SEIU members hired at the facility before Jan. 1 a $2,000 lump-sum severance package, while salaried employees received $3,000.

Zelda Pirt, an employee in the health center’s dietary department, said to the commissioners during the public comment period, “We’ve been kept in the dark through this whole process. You guys have had family members in there. Some of the residents don’t have family.” The workers, she said, become substitute families, and they’re asked each day by patients, “Are you going to be here to take care of us?”

She reminded the commissioners that the Washington County Health Center has achieved a four-out-of-five-star rating on the website.

Dawn Futrell, administrative organizer for SEIU Healthcare PA, said after the meeting that the union was not aware the county had prepared a different severance package for management employees.

Contract talks with Premier have not yet begun. “It’s never pretty, ever,” she said of the changeover from county to for-profit ownership. “But this is the first one I’ve seen where they’re coming in with a cut in wages. Obviously, this is their business model.”

Some have called the health center’s employees the highest-paid nursing home workers in Washington County, with food-service workers earning in the $37,000 to $38,000 range and LPNs making about $46,000.

“That’s reflected in the star rating,” Futrell continued. “Managed care is coming ... and these facilities (will be) reimbursed based on their star rating.”

Also after the meeting, commission Chairman Larry Maggi said, “My understanding is, some of these are proposals. None of these numbers have been verified to me. I am not privy to negotiations.

“We understand the angst and the concerns over a new employer. It is scary. I understand, and I wish there was something we could do to comfort that. We, the county, failed when we ran it. County government just didn’t do a good job running the health center. We could not continue bleeding $9 million,” Maggi said, referring to the amount the county has lost while running the center since 2012.