Healthcare workers stand strong during lockout

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Workers at Sunrise House, an addiction treatment center in Lafayette, N.J., planned a three-day strike on May 24 to protest unfair labor practices by their employer, American Addiction Centers, but are instead dealing with a lockout.

"I thought there was potential for them to take us seriously, but this reinforces what we already knew: They care more about profits than their patients, "says Sheila Schicker, a nurse at Sunrise House.

The lockout at Sunrise House has disrupted the treatment of patients, who were uprooted and transferred to other facilities. Transferring patients out of the facility interrupts care, says Schicker, who notes that many patients who didn't want to be transferred elected to forgo treatment and return home.

Sunrise House workers locked out

Sunrise House employs 120 nurses, counselors, housekeepers, maintenance workers, dietary aides and secretaries. They voted to join Health Professionals and Allied Employees in June 2016.

"If we hadn't voted for the union, we'd be in a worse situation," says Daniel Jodexnis, a detox counselor at Sunrise House. "There is a total lack of concern for clients and staff."

The workers' strategy for the three-day strike was to highlight the bad behavior of the employer, American Addiction Centers, a national for-profit chain. AAC has failed to bargain in good faith and refuses to address dangerous working conditions at the facility. It is also under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for complaints about working conditions.

For nearly a year, HPAE has been working to negotiate a first contract for the nurses and health professionals at the facility.

"It's been a long road," says Linda Fescine, a counselor at Sunrise House. "We have tentative agreements on some of the little things, but we're still working on the big stuff—the three essential things that will make this place better."

The major issues for Sunrise House workers are staffing, health and safety, and compensation, all of which are insufficient, workers say. Management at AAC has refused to offer satisfactory improvements in any of those areas.

"Their action is an affront to workers, but also to the residents in need of safe and effective treatment. Despite the lockout, we will continue to bargain for a contract that protects patients and workers," says HPAE President Ann Twomey, who also is an AFT vice president.

Workers continue to rally daily in front of the facility. On May 30, they were joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten and Phil Murphy, who is running for governor in New Jersey. The leaders were there to show support for the workers, and to demand that management stop violating the labor law and negotiate a fair contract. Weingarten decried AAC's overriding focus on profit, pointing out that AAC can do the "right thing" and make Sunrise House a facility that provides high-quality care for the clients as well as good working conditions for the staff. Noting how important an issue opioid addiction has become, Murphy urged AAC to go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract so treatment at the facility can resume.

"It's great to see that people care about our patients and the way the staff is treated," says Katherine Vaughn, a nurse at Sunrise House. "I know that AAC is hoping that we will give up, but we will never give up."

"We are strong, and we stand united," says Schicker. "We will stay until this is resolved."

[Adrienne Coles, HPAE press release]