Catholic Nursing Home Employees Strike for a Living Wage

While employees at nearby secular competitors earn a living wage, food service employees at Our Lady of Peace Nursing Home in Lewiston New York earn the legal minimum in their community and CNAs earn scarcely more. That’s the main reason employees of the nursing home held a one-day strike in March.

The workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), walked off the job for a single day on March 9. They have now resumed bargaining with nursing home, owned by the St. Louis-based Ascension Health Care.

Catholic Social Teaching calls for every worker to receive a living wage. The legal minimum wage in upstate New York is set at $13.20 per hour, or approximately $26,400 per year for a full-time employee.

Theresa Tomlin, an 11-year CNA at Our Lady of Peace, said “I have to pick up double shifts to survive. Other aides are on public assistance or have taken second jobs. People are fighting to make ends meet.”

“I’ve thought about leaving but what keeps me there are the residents. They are like family to me.”

The low wages at the facility aren’t only a problem because of Catholic Social Teaching. Employees at the facility say that staffing shortages have become severe. With nearby competitors offering wages that are $1-5/hour higher than at Our Lady of Peace, they say, it’s impossible to recruit workers.

“We all used to love it here. Not so much anymore – we are unable to give residents the care they deserve because of understaffing,” said Tresa Torcasio, a 12-year nurse at the facility and parishioner at nearby St. John’s. “You can’t get people in if they can make more money someplace else.”

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Proposed in DC

Few workers are at greater risk of exploitation than domestic workers. Nannies, au pairs, house cleaners, home health aides – all too often these workers work alone under the supervision of their employer, and under informal and precarious work arrangements. Sexual harassment and wage theft are frequent occurrences. To make matters worse, they have historically been excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws.

That may be about to change in Washington DC. On Tuesday, March 15, DC Councilmember Elissa Silverman announced release of the DC Domestic Workers Employment Rights Amendment Act. Read more

Will Tennessee Voters Choose Right to Work?

A guest contribution from CLN member Frank Maurizio

Voters in Tennessee have a crucial decision coming up this fall as we are being asked whether or not the state’s long-tenured “right to work” law should be enshrined in the Tennessee constitution. The timing of this vote – in fact, its necessity at all – is odd; this deep-red state is hardly headed toward becoming a bastion of organized labor.

But Tennessee lawmakers – overwhelmingly Republican – are nervous. Tennessee, which in 2020 was the third least unionized state in the U.S., led the nation in union gains in 2021. Meanwhile, neighboring Georgia ranked seventh in an increase in union jobs.

Clearly, something is happening in the South as union activism – still far from where the Catholic Labor Network and other pro-worker groups would like to see it – is gaining strength. In my neck of the woods (I moved to Chattanooga from labor-friendly New York two years ago), we are excited by Ford’s recent announcement that it is bringing new electric vehicle and battery plants to Tennessee, and the automaker is reportedly open to a unionized workforce.

This has given the right-to-work champions more impetus to get the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. It has also resulted in a GOP-led effort to ban organizing through card check at companies that receive state incentives to move here.

The fate of that effort remains uncertain but the legislative majority and its allies in the business community are putting their full weight behind the right-to-work constitutional amendment. That means, of course, that those of us who support the right to organize have a responsibility – and an opportunity – to remind voters that right-to-work laws are nothing more than a continued effort to take advantage of workers and thwart their chance to earn a fair wage.

And we might just have an opening: A Gallup Poll last year showed union support at its highest level in more than 50 years at 68 percent of those polled (Labor Unions | Gallup Historical Trends). Another study found that 60 million Americans would join a union if they could. Promising trends, indeed.

As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond said at a recent convention in Nashville: “Workers are fed up and America is taking notice of our collective action. … Working people are waking up and understanding the value of labor unions.”

As the vote on the constitutional amendment gets closer in Tennessee, let’s hope that Brother Redmond is right.

Justice Too Long Delayed is Justice Denied

An update on farmworker overtime from CLN Member Laurie Konwinski

New York State farmworkers are still not covered by the overtime laws that apply to other hourly workers.  As reported in a recent CLN blog post, New York State established a Wage Board to consider lowering the threshold are which farmworkers are eligible for overtime.  After hearing many hours of testimony, the three-person panel called for overtime for agricultural laborers to remain at the 60-hour per week threshold until January 1, 2024.  At that point, they recommended that the threshold be reduced to 56-hour work week, and continue to be reduced by four hours every two years.  This means it will take until January 1, 2032 for farmworkers to reach parity in overtime protection and be eligible for overtime after 40 hours of work.  Even this decade-long delay in equity is not guaranteed.  The recommendation by the Wage Board is not binding.  It must be approved by the New York State Commissioner of Labor, whose decision has not yet been announced.

Catholic Labor Network “Listening Session” with DC Domestic Workers

Few workers are at greater risk of exploitation than domestic workers. Nannies, au pairs, house cleaners, home health aides – all too often these workers work alone under the supervision of their employer, and under informal and precarious work arrangements. Sexual harassment and wage theft are frequent occurrences. To make matters worse, they have historically been excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network recently teamed up with Washington DC’s Festival Center to host a “listening session” with DC domestic worker Antonia Surco for the area’s faith-inspired activists.

Like most domestic workers today, Surco is an immigrant – in her case from Peru. Sucro spoke about her career caring for both young children and disabled elders in prosperous DC homes, caring work that she loves to perform. However, it is risky – she was dismissed suddenly at the start of the pandemic, facing total loss of income. As a domestic worker without a written contract she was ineligible for unemployment and unable to access key elements of coronavirus relief. A parishioner at nearby St. Catherine Laboure in Maryland, Surco was cheered by the presence of representatives of several DC parishes and of the Archdiocese of Washington.  She urged participants to support passage of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would include, among other things, a requirement that those hiring a domestic worker sign a written contract.

Surco is one of the leaders of the DC Chapter of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. The group formed to fill a void in American labor and employment law – protection for domestic workers. During the New Deal of the 1930s, when the federal government passed the Social Security Act (unemployment insurance and old age pensions), the National Labor Relations Act (the right to organize in unions) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (the minimum wage), domestic workers were conspicuously excluded from coverage. These exclusions set a pattern, and domestic workers were often left unprotected by subsequent employment laws. It is unlikely a coincidence that this work, then and now, has largely been performed by people of color.

Surco and her colleagues are asking the Washington DC City Council to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Such legislation would ensure that in the future domestic workers were covered by the DC Human Rights law (which guards against both discrimination and sexual harassment) and by the District’s workplace safety and health ordinance. It would also guarantee domestic workers a written contract.

As Catholics, we believe that every worker is a child of God possessing human dignity. Every worker has rights. The time is now for a DC Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. To view the listening session on video, click play below.

Workers Win Right to Recall in Howard County

Recently in this space you read how Maryland Catholic Labor Network members joined hotel workers and community organizations testifying in support of “right to recall” for hospitality workers in Howard County, Maryland. Right to recall laws offer hope to hotel workers laid off during the pandemic, directing employers who are ready to reopen for business to offer employment to their idled career employees before seeking replacement workers. We are pleased to report that the Howard County Council voted 4-1 in support of right to recall, giving workers in that community the same rights that hospitality workers in Baltimore, DC and cities and states across the country had already secured. Unfortunately, an amendment excluding contracted workers was included in the final bill. Let’s pray that the owners of the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, whose stubborn resistance to this commonsense personnel policy inspired the county initiative, comply with the law in good faith.

Wage Theft, Discrimination against Women Workers Found on Amazon Construction Site

Amazon has made headlines recently for fighting its own workers seeking to organize in unions at distribution centers in Alabama and New York. It turns out that workers’ rights aren’t necessarily respected on Amazon construction sites either, as a group women workers learned while finishing drywall at a new Amazon distribution center in Beltsville, Maryland.

A notorious open shop contractor, Avena, had the contract for framing and drywall, but relied on a series of labor brokers to staff the work. The women told IUPAT union organizers and Catholic Labor Network field representative Guillermo Martinez that an Avena drywall superintendent named Brian Bueso had been harassing them and treating them differently than the men. “He would follow everything that I would do and would always be behind me,” explained one of the finishers, Maria Sagrario Garcia. “He prohibited us from going to the bathroom.” When the women complained about his behavior to the general contractor, Bueso told their labor broker that he wanted all the women removed from the job.

Consulting with the union, the women learned that they were also victims of extensive wage theft. With the project running behind, they had been working 72-hour weeks for two months – and had never been paid time and a half. The union estimates that the workers are owed more than $50,000 in lost wages.

With help from the IUPAT, the women have filed a wage theft claim with the Maryland Department of Labor – and a sexual discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Maryland Catholic Labor Network supports Paid Family Leave

This year the Maryland legislature is considering a law implementing paid family leave, with broad support from labor, the Catholic Church, and an array of community-based organizations. Financed by a modest payroll tax split between employer and employee, The Time to Care Act would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to workers caring for a sick family member or welcoming a new child.

On Feb. 7 the Maryland chapter of the Catholic Labor Network teamed up with Baltimore Catholic Charities to host a webinar on Paid Family Leave for Catholic activists, focusing on the need for economic structures that support families. Maryland Delegate Kris Valderrama, a parishioner at St. Columba in Oxon Hill, explained why she was sponsoring the legislation. From Catholic Charities, Regan Vaughn and Lisa Klingenmaier explained the proposal in detail, while therapist Maggie Schultz related stories of families she worked with rocked by illness. Maryland Catholic Labor Network member Terry Cavanagh commented on labor’s support for Time to Care.

Why is the Maryland Catholic Conference supporting paid family leave? It’s pretty simple, actually. As America’s Catholic Bishops put it in their 1986 Pastoral Letter on the Economy, Economic Justice for All,

The lack of a mutually supportive relation between family life and economic life is one of the most serious problems facing the United States today…Economic and social policies as well as the organization of the work world should be continually evaluated in light of their impact on the strength and stability of family life.

While the world tells us that we should accommodate our families to the demands of the economy, the world has it exactly backward. The family is created by God, and our economic structures should accommodate and support strong and stable families. One way they can do this is by providing paid family leave when family members need to care for a loved one or a newborn (or newly adopted) child.

Several other states and the District of Columbia have already implemented similar Paid Family Leave programs. The Maryland Catholic Labor Network has designated the Time to Care Act a legislative priority in 2022, along with support for collective bargaining for employees of the Office of the Public Defender.

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine, Part Five
by Bill Droel

Catholicism ducked its appointment with modernity for about 400 years. Not until Vatican II (1962-1965) did Catholicism open the door to dialogue with the modern world—not a wholesale acceptance of every modern trend, but an engagement conducted with patience and sophistication.
Catholicism opposed the Protestant Reformation (from 1517) because it was part of modern trends of individual standards, of sundry forms of worship and of authority structures unattached to Catholicism. Catholic officialdom was threatened by these and other emerging liberal values, including government autonomy, by professions that claimed their own independence and by secular culture. The violent anti-clericalism of the French Revolution in 1789 justifiably added to Catholicism’s fears. When the French monarchy was briefly restored, many Catholic leaders embraced it with a right wing, royalist mentality. However, by 1905 France firmly accepted modernity and its concept of autonomous society (laicite).
The Catholic/modern dialogue proceeds in fits and starts. Even today some Catholic leaders inappropriately revert to blanket condemnations, foregoing sincere dialogue with those who disagree. Yet to be fair, on several topics Catholicism’s caution about modern trends has proved prophetic.
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) inaugurated the formal body of Catholic social thought with his encyclical On the Condition of Labor. It condemned Marxism, a modern materialistic philosophy. To do so, Leo XIII reiterated a qualified approval of private property. As it turned out, communist collectivism oppressed rather than liberated many. Leo XIII was likewise prophetic in his condemnation of the modern materialistic philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism—what people today call neo-liberalism. An economy that spins with only the force of finance creates a hierarchical system in which the majority cannot meaningfully participate.
At its best the Catholic tradition fosters a reasonable approach with which to argue intelligently and temperately with the world, explains Fr. William O’Neill in America (12/21). The differences about current issues must respect common rules of the game, he explains. The conversation must be conducted in a common grammar.
For example, meaning must be moored to truth. The rules require that validating important matters solely on one’s opinion or one’s feelings is inadequate. Truth is arrived at through evidence. Truth-seeking is not a performance, not an avenue for vindication or a way to process resentment. An honest dialogue about modern issues has to forego cancelling the speech of others. It has to be void of self-righteousness. There is room for multiple interpretation of facts but there is no such thing as alternative facts. At the same time everyone has to understand that while the rules of truth-seeking are permanent, tomorrow’s discovery or future evidence can change yesterday’s conclusion.
O’Neill also reminds us that rights are not the same as interests. An individual right is normally a claim mixed within other rights. That is, each right comes with duties or considerations. Contrary to neo-liberal philosophy, a conflict of claims is not settled by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Decisions in the real world have to aim toward the common good; the good outcome that is only obtained if people cooperate. The decision-making process is informed argument, not outrage.
Finally, as O’Neill mentions, Catholicism or any other religion dialogues in the public square with reasoned language, not insider language. Sectarianism only isolates a religious voice. O’Neill uses abortion as an example. Catholicism opposes direct and purposeful abortion not as “one sectarian interest among others.” The opposition is not a Catholic position, per se. To influence the world, positions on abortion or other issues, have to be expressed in universal terms. And so, in a public dialogue O’Neill would put it this way: All people have a basic right to life and a right to the means of sustaining life—a right to basic nutrition, to adequate health care, etc. The “strongest case against abortion,” he says, is an argument based on “upholding the rights of all.”
Catholic leaders and ordinary Catholics can be as strident as anyone else, indiscriminately maligning groups of people. They can also shortsightedly put their faith in authoritarians or phony media personalities or corrupt business leaders. They can hurt the innocent. They can wash away their public sins as mere failures in management. Yet with humble application of our social doctrine Catholics can help improve business conduct, labor relations, social policy, care for the environment, respect for inherent dignity of each person, international affairs, the nurturing of children and more. A Catholic contribution to the world presumes, of course, that Catholics know their social doctrine and are capable of strategically using it. To be continued…

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Fighting for a 40-hour Week for Farm Workers

A guest contribution from CLN member Laurie Konwinski

The workers who harvest fruits and vegetables, milk cows, and tend other farm animals do not have the same labor rights as other workers in New York State. The same is true in almost every other state.

It seems no coincidence that during the Jim Crow era, when millions of African Americans labored as farmworkers and domestic workers, those two categories of workers were denied coverage under the basic labor rights established under the New Deal.  Those rights included the right to overtime after a 40-hour work week.  Over eight decades later, federal and state labor laws continue to exclude farmworkers.

Catholic belief in the dignity of labor and in the right of every single worker to basic workplace fairness determines that there is no legal nor moral basis for this unequal treatment. For many years, the New York State Catholic Conference and dozens of other faith and labor organizations supported passage of the state-level Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill to end the exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections such as overtime, a guaranteed day of rest per week, and the right to bargain collectively.

In 2019, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester New York collected more 10,300 petition signatures in favor of the bill.  A watered-down version of it finally passed the New York State legislature that year and was signed into law.  Pressure from the very powerful agricultural lobby shaped the bill so that farmworkers would only receive overtime after working 60 hours per week.  However, the new law also established a three-person wage board to consider if that 60-hour threshold ought to be lowered.

Advocates from Catholic Charities and workers’ rights organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development were among hundreds of people who testified at recent hearings of this wage board.  In asking that the overtime threshold be lowered, they cited the health and safety risks facing farmworkers, especially after 40 hours of work, and the obvious structural racism of a system that provides unequal treatment to a workforce comprised almost exclusively of people of color.  A decision from the wage board is pending.  It may be one more step towards equal labor rights for those whose work feeds millions of people.

-Laurie Konwinski
Coordinator, Justice & Peace Ministry
Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga, based in Ithaca NY
and member of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee of the Diocese of Rochester NY