Long-term care workers lobby in Olympia for better wages, better care

Murrow News ServiceFebruary 27, 2014 

OLYMPIA -- Nursing home worker Patti Boelke has worked at the Richland Rehabilitation Center for five and a half years. Still, the dietary aide says she's making 61 cents above minimum wage.

"I'd like to see (my wage) get put up where I belong," she said at a rally Thursday in Olympia.

Better wages for nursing home workers and better care for their residents was the primary focus of the annual lobby day for the health care arm of the Service Employees International Union.

About 70 long-term care workers from around the state attended, said Jackson Holtz, SEIU's 775NW spokesman.

That included nearly 20 central and eastern Washington residents who boarded Olympia-bound buses in the Tri-Cities, Yakima and Sunnyside, including Boelke and co-worker Anne Bowen.

Workers were divided into groups based on their legislative districts and sent to meet with local legislators, said Holtz, who added that the workers were allowed a paid day to visit Olympia as part of their union contract.

Boelke and Bowen met with Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, to tell them about their concerns.

Haler told the Herald their meeting was positive, and he would consider staff and funding issues related to longterm care facilities.

Of the bills the union put on its 2014 legislative agenda, just one is still alive.

House Bill 2310, which passed unanimously Feb. 14, provides home care workers basic health and safety protections such as gloves.

Holtz said it's important that those who take care of the state's most vulnerable people -- the elderly and disabled who can only get into Medicaid-supported nursing homes -- get adequate compensation to pay their bills, afford education and save for retirement.

Right now, Holtz said, that's simply not possible.

Bowen, an activity assistant for three and a half years, said safer working conditions, quality care for residents and better funding were the main things they wanted legislators to hear about.

"It's not enough," said Bowen of her wages. "You have to decide which bills you're going to pay."

Boelke also said residents should get better food and snacks.

"Our snacks are really bad right now," she said. "All they get is apple juice and graham crackers."

Holtz said lawmakers understand that Thursday's event is a great opportunity for them to hear directly from constituents about what's going on in their communities.

"It's to everybody's benefit -- the residents and the workers -- that we have a good relationship with the lawmakers and that we're able to come here and have lawmakers hear from the workers directly," he said.

SEIU Healthcare's 775NW is Washington's third-largest union, representing more than 43,000 members statewide.

-- Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277, mbenoit@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit_

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