Before Pansy Clayton, 60, emigrated from Jamaica years ago, she spent some time caring for her sick mother.
"I realized I had a passion for it," she tells New Times. "When I came to this country, my first job was to take care of children. After that, I said, 'Let me go into nursing.'" So for the past 11 years, she's worked as a registered nursing assistant at the Hillcrest Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Hollywood. It's owned by Consulate Health Care, a national nursing-home chain.
Clayton typically works 40-hour weeks. She sees eight to ten patients a day. But despite her workload, she says she still makes only $11 per hour and lives paycheck to paycheck.
So at 7 o'clock tonight, she'll join roughly 1,500 members of her union, 1199 SEIU, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union, in what the union is calling the "largest strike in the Southeast in more than a decade." The union is demanding Consulate pay its workers a minimum of $15 per hour.
The strike, union spokesperson Natalia Jaramillo says, will start at 7 a.m. and last for the next 24 hours. The union, she said, represents 1,230 nursing assistants throughout 19 Consulate facilities in Florida, as well as many of its custodians, housekeepers, and other hourly workers. The union represents more than 55,000 workers statewide.
At 6 p.m., workers will also strike in Miami.
The protest comes as the nation, overall, debates just what a "living wage" means anymore. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have signed bills that will eventually up their minimum wages to $15. Bernie Sanders has advocated setting the federal minimum wage at $15. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, believes the federal minimum should sit at $12.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Living Wage Calculator," which computes the bare minimum an individual would need to support himself or herself in a given area, a "Living Wage" in Broward County comes out to roughly $11.55 per hour for a single, adult person. An adult with one child would need to make $24.70 per hour to support them both.
Florida's minimum wage, however, is currently $8.05 an hour.
Though the number seems low, even after adjusting for inflation, the national minimum has rarely ticked up past the current level throughout the country's history. Last year, the Pew Research Center estimated that the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968. The minimum wage then is equal to about $8.54 an hour today.
National minimum wages tend to reflect how rich, overall, a country is. Though the United States is the world's wealthiest nation by quite a large margin, countries like France, Australia, and Belgium pay their workers more than $10 an hour. The Economist in 2015 suggested that, compared to the rest of the world, the United States ought to be paying a $12 wage.
More than any other group, SEIU has turned the "Fight for $15" into a national movement, galvanizing its workers around the country to protest for higher wages. The union has designated April 15 its national "Fight for 15" day and has scheduled protests nationwide.
After pushing heavily for fast-food-worker increases, the union is turning its sights on the nursing-home industry. The SEIU says that Consulate isn't paying its workers enough for them to support themselves and that the wages are so low they're affecting patient safety. The union claims it's been asking Consulate to up its wages, to no avail.
A fact sheet SEIU sent out yesterday claimed that, while the nursing-home chain "continues to be a highly
profitable company with an abundance of resources available capable of improving nursing home
quality for residents," its employees often work in unsafe conditions. The union claims a 2014 inspection revealed Hillcrest, today's protest site, to be "in disrepair," with "torn bed frames; heavily soiled mats, medication bottles, and room sinks; missing handrails," and other violations.
Jennifer Trapp, a Consulate spokesperson, said via email, "While we are disappointed in the union’s decision to strike, the continuity of patient and resident care will remain unaffected thanks to the combined efforts of our dedicated staff and compassionate fellow care center volunteers. We will continue to work in good faith, as we have always done, towards a resolution.”
On Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported that close to half of the nursing-home employees in Massachusetts rely on public assistance to "make ends meet."
Clayton, meanwhile, says that while she loves her job, conditions aren't much better for her in South Florida.
"We have to take care of our patients, bathe them, comb their hair, perform oral care, and so on," Clayton says. "Sometimes I'm in the restorative area exercising with them." But despite this, she says, "we cannot really pay our mortgages on time. Taking care of patients is a passion, and I love my patients. So I'm sorry that have to do what I have to do to carry on living. But when I stop work at age 65, I won't have any savings."