HARRISBURG — Ayisha Westry is passionate about affordable health care, higher wages, and safe staffing ratios.
The Wilkes-Barre woman, who works as a licensed practical nurse at Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Taylor, says she pays $70 to $100 monthly just in co-pays for her prescription medication.
“I can’t work myself to death trying to make a livable wage to take care of myself,” she said. “I can’t work 110 hours every two weeks. It’s ridiculous.”
Westry was one of nearly 40 local union members mostly affiliated with the Service Employees International Union from Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and the surrounding area who traveled to Harrisburg on Tuesday to give politicians the loud and clear message that Pennsylvania needs unions.
The two-day event, dubbed “Stand up for Working People,” coincides with the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement combating systemic racism, poverty, and economic inequality.
Rose Yanko, of Wilkes-Barre, an SEIU assistant organizer who is helping with contract negotiations with several area hospitals including Wilkes-Barre General, described short-staffed health care facilities as “an epidemic everywhere.” She is part of a team that is pushing for legislation that requires safe ratios of nurses to patients for proper care.
More than 400 nurses employed with Wilkes-Barre General and represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals held a one-day strike in May to protest staffing issues.
Yanko has worked as an LPN since 1995 and also became a home caregiver a few years ago.
“I think I have PTSD from my nursing career being short-staffed and wondering if I took care of everything,” she said. ”It was a nightmare, especially doing 16-hour shifts.”
More than 200 members of SEIU Healthcare as well as other affiliated groups from all over the state met with lawmakers to discuss their concerns and rallied inside the Capitol in support of keeping unions and making it easier to join them as well as better working conditions as a whole.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the benefit that the union does give them,” said Laura Carr, a certified nursing assistant at the Gardens at Wyoming Valley, a Wilkes-Barre-based nursing home. She also said many new hires at her nursing home who are non-union do not receive time off for holidays or a guaranteed pay increase like union members do.
Natasia Shaw works in the housekeeping department at the Gardens at Wyoming Valley and like Westry, she also feels the amount of work she does does not match her wage.
“I think we (housekeeping employees) get paid the least — in the single digits to be exact — and I just feel like we definitely deserve more than that,” Shaw said.
Janus v. AFSCME, a controversial Supreme Court case that many see as a threat to the existence of unions, was also discussed throughout the day. If the court rules in favor of Illinois state government worker and plaintiff Mark Janus, public employee unions in 22 states, including Pennsylvania, will not be able to collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
“No matter what that decision says, we will not allow rollback of any rights in Pennsylvania,” vowed state Rep. Dan Miller, a Democrat from the western part of the state. “Pennsylvanians know how much unions have meant in our lives.”
A ruling is expected sometime this month.