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Workers protest unsafe conditions at Buffalo nursing home after resident's death

About 50 union workers raised safety and understaffing concerns Thursday afternoon outside a Buffalo nursing home where a resident fell to his death earlier this month while apparently trying to escape.

Virginia Holt, who just retired from the Emerald South Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, said staffing shortages there have resulted in a lack of care for the home's residents.

"The residents are our top concern. Any time you only have two CNAs (certified nursing aides) on a floor, with one LPN and 40 patients, that means some will not be cared for," said Holt, as workers picketed in front of the nursing home chanting, "They say cutbacks, we say fight back."

William Strasner, 87, an Emerald South resident, fell to his death June 4 while trying to climb down a makeshift rope from his third-floor window. Strasner, a patient in the dementia unit, was using a rope of bedsheets and clothing in an attempt to lower himself about 34 feet to the ground when he fell outside the 1175 Delaware Ave. nursing home. Buffalo police have said his death appears accidental.

The state Department of Health, which oversees nursing homes, is investigating Strasner's death.

Holt and 1199 SEIU officials also pointed out that Emerald South paychecks to some workers bounced last Friday, and some workers have been notified that their health insurance has been cancelled because of nonpayment by the nursing home's owner, Opal Care LLC.

Heather Edwards, the administrator of Emerald South, said in a prepared statement, "Emerald South is engaged with federal and state regulators to determine the best way to proceed toward ensuring the best environment for our residents. Together we are focusing on care and safety and appreciate the partnership we have with the state Department of Health."

Emerald South was awarded a two-star overall rating out of a possible five stars by the state Health Department following its most recent inspection. That is below average.

The 122-bed facility was fined $10,000 by the state in February 2017 in connection with the death of resident Ruth Murray, an 82-year-old woman who suffered fatal injuries in a beating at the hands of an 84-year-old male resident.

SEIU Vice President Todd Hobler said the state Health Department has informed him that Emerald South has been designated "a special focus facility," which means federal funding will be provided for additional state inspections of the home.

The DOH, he said, has agreed to meet next month with union workers to discuss conditions at the nursing home.

Two years ago, union workers at Emerald South also held a protest outside the nursing home after Murray was beaten to death by another resident of the home.

On the morning of Aug. 26, 2016, she mistakenly wandered into a man’s room in the dementia unit, where she also lived, and the attack occurred. Murray suffered a broken neck, several broken ribs, a broken nose, facial fractures and a collapsed lung in the attack. She died three days later.

The state fined Emerald South after determining it had not ensured that each resident receives adequate supervision to prevent such incidents.

Calling for passage of a state law to create caregiver ratios at nursing homes and hospitals, Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Cheektowaga, said the "safe staffing" measure would place a cap on the number of residents that nurses and CNAs are assigned.

"These workers do a challenging and thankless job, often for minimal wages," Wallace said. "The work is physically and emotionally draining."

Emerald South nursing home resident Janine Ziomek-Witek, who participated in the rally, cited a number of shortcomings at the facility.

She said the home has a lack of supplies, including briefs for residents and fresh linens, and problems with plumbing and broken washing machines.

"The short of it is the residents get caught in the middle," said Ziomek-Witek, whose right leg is amputated below the knee, and was being pushed in a wheelchair by her husband Michael.

SEIU represents about 5,000 long-term health care workers at 35 nursing homes in Western New York.

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