Health-care workers lament stingy pay, benefits

4:03 p.m Monday, Feb. 26, 2018 Business
Workers protest for better pay and working conditions in front of Palm Garden Health and Rehabilitation Center of West Palm Beach. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Even after two decades on the job, certified nursing assistant Stephanie Gooden said she earns such a meager wage that she needs a second job to support herself.

Gooden and other employees of West Palm Beach nursing home Palm Garden protested outside the facility on Monday. Wearing purple shirts and waving signs, they said that after two years of negotiations, the employer has offered raises of just 10 cents an hour.

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“It’s not fair — not a 10-cent raise,” Gooden said.

Gooden and other workers, who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, said many of them make less than $10 an hour. Some earn Florida’s minimum wage of $8.25.

“There is no way that for the back-breaking work you do, you should be making minimum wage,” union organizer Jude Derisme told workers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the nursing home.

Florida’s labor market seemingly is firing on all cylinders. Palm Beach County’s unemployment rate has fallen below 4 percent, and workers in many fields find robust demand for their services.

That’s not the case for low-wage workers in health care and other industries, however. Gooden and others said they receive only bare-bones benefits at Palm Garden.

Employees can contribute to a 401(k) plan, but the employer offers no match. And workers said under-staffing means they scramble to take proper care of patients.

“We’re working short all the time,” Gooden said.

Representatives of Palm Garden couldn’t be reached for comment Monday. A maintenance worker repaired sprinklers during the protest, spraying workers as they stood on the sidewalk.

Low wages are a challenge for health care workers at other employers, too. Betty Jean Gamble of West Palm Beach said she makes $11.99 an hour as a night-shift housekeeper at a hospital whose name she declined to disclose.

To collect an extra $1.50 an hour, Gamble works the grueling midnight to 8 a.m. shift. When she gets drowsy at 4 a.m., she chugs coffee to stay awake.

The housekeeping shifts are characterized by a hectic pace. Low pay means high turnover among workers, Gamble said.

“When they see what kind of work they have to do, they don’t stay,” Gamble said. “It’s hard work.”