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Michigan unions rally for veterans’ health care

By Tom Burke |
July 2, 2013
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Rally against privatization of Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.
Rally against privatization of Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. (Fight Back! News/Staff)
Trade unionists rally for veterans’ health care.
Trade unionists rally for veterans’ health care.

Grand Rapids, MI - Giving new meaning to ‘soldiers of solidarity,’ U.S. veterans joined fired health care workers to rally in front of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans on the afternoon of July 1. The action, involving nearly 100 people, exposed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s privatization schemes, in this case leading to neglect and abuse of veterans. Longtime resident care aides employed by the state of Michigan were fired, and their jobs privatized by the non-union J2S Group, a for-profit company that refuses to speak on the matter.

AFSCME Local 261 President Mark Williams called for the protest saying, “Experienced aides were tossed aside on a flimsy cost saving argument. Veterans deserve proper care!”

Ed Helwig is a retired Army veteran E8, and member of both the Disabled Army Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Helwig was out protesting in full Vietnam era uniform, including a radio pack. He said, “I am concerned about the abuse and neglect of veterans inside the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, including 50 women vets from the Vietnam era. There are also Korea and World War II veterans.”

Helwig continued, “Veterans testified at the Michigan State Civil Service Commission a few months ago and told shocking stories. Apparently a trainee from the private company was going to physically lift a vet from a wheel chair to a bed without a Hoyer lift, so the trainer took him out of the room to get the lift and when they came back, the veteran had fallen out of the wheelchair and was lying on the floor with a broken nose and back pains.”

Veterans and fired union workers say military patients are endangered by low staffing levels and poor training that leads to substandard care under the J2S Group. The privatized workers are paid $10 an hour – less than half the pay and benefits the unionized health care workers had. J2S is struggling to fill full-time positions and retain employees.

Megan Terry and Gail Klukos are resident care aides who worked at the Grand Rapids Home for more than nine and ten years respectively. They were fired on March 12, when the private contract workers they were told were “filling in” for vacations and sick days during the past year replaced the 172 union workers. The women said, “Two years ago they stopped admitting to our 750-patient facility and there are 450 veterans now. It is unbelievable, but the entire top floor is empty. Even still, there are still not enough workers to cover weekend shifts and some workers are being forced to take three shifts in a row. That is a violation.”

Terry explained, “As state employees our training involved two weeks of classroom and two weeks of shadowing experienced resident care aides. The privates get eight hours and are sent on their way not knowing what they are doing.”

Asked, “What do you do now?” Terry replied she has a new job in Kalamazoo and Klukos says she is still looking. Klukos said, “I would love to come back and work here again. We still come to visit our patients. We love these guys. Both of us come once a week.”

Fired Veterans Home health care worker and AFSCME union member Michael Booker explained, “The veterans we care for are not just ‘patients’ but also fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and family. My own father spent the last two years of his life here before he died. I saw and cared for my Dad every day. I was lucky not to be drafted to go to Vietnam and I did not want to go, but coming from a military family I felt it was important to take care of those veterans who were forced to go.”

Local African American leader and Vietnam era veteran Paul Mayhue pointed out, “Governor Snyder can fix this terrible situation with an executive order and make it right. All we need is the word from the Nerd! Things are heading in the wrong direction.”

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