Demanding better health benefits and higher salaries, employees of the Golden Slipper Health and Rehab Center, a Jewish nursing home in Northeast Philadelphia, took to the picket line at the stroke of midnight on the first day of July, the date that marked the expiration of their five-year contract.
Part of the National Union of Hospital and Health-Care Employees, the roughly 150 striking workers include nurses, medical assistants, therapists and receptionists, along with dining and maintenance staff.
"We can't give one check to health care and one to rent. How are we going to eat?" said Sandy Robert, a licensed practical nurse who described herself as a negotiator for the workers.
Standing along Bustleton Avenue in the late-afternoon humidity, Robert said that she'd been protesting since midnight. "I'm out here to get back to my residents. I haven't slept. How can you sleep when your heart is in your throat?"
According to a June 23 letter written by Annette Palo, Golden Slipper's new executive director, and addressed to residents' family members, management was anticipating a strike and developing a strike plan "to ensure that all our residents continue to receive the highest quality of care."
She also stated that in the event of a strike, residents might have to go home to family members or be moved to another facility, though it's not clear if that has happened.
Susan Nappen, director of nursing, said that management along with replacement workers arrived in the building Thursday, spending the night. Many of them were holed up in the nursing home until late Friday, a day during which picketers did whatever they could to prevent anyone, with the exception of family members and residents themselves, from entering the premises.
"They were pretty much yelling through the whole night," reported Nappen. "They used bullhorns and whistles. The residents were very frightened and confused."
Around 3 p.m. on Friday, a woman who said she was a nurse practitioner attempted to enter Golden Slipper, and was greeted by a wall of demonstrators who blocked the front door and shouted, "No contract, no work."
A Philadelphia police officer asked the group to let the woman into the building, but to no avail.
Moments earlier, the wail of an ambulance could be heard rapidly approaching the site. Several dozen workers abandoned the front steps and sprinted around the corner to a driveway on the grounds. Around 50 people blocked the ambulance, which for several minutes idled in the street with its siren still blaring before turning around as the workers cheered.
Employee Veronica Stanley said that management had been using ambulances to sneak replacement workers into the nursing home.
How did the strikers know it wasn't a real medical emergency?
"In an emergency, they don't go through the front door, they go through the side door," replied Stanley.
But Nappen denied this allegation.
"An ambulance won't allow themselves to be used to bring staff into the building," she said, adding that as it turned out, two residents did need to be hospitalized, though they were both doing fine. Management later called 911, and picketers let those ambulances through, she said.
Nappen added that as of early Friday evening, things had calmed down, and that management and replacement workers were able to come and go. She explained that the nursing facility had asked the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for an injunction to prevent demonstrators from blocking the doors, and requiring that they picket across the street.
A court clerk said a hearing on the matter was planned for Wednesday.
While puffing on a cigarette in front of the building, Marsha Stern, whose elderly mother is a resident at the facility, wasn't sure the older woman would receive adequate care during the strike.
"I'll sleep here, if I have to," she said pointedly.
Stacia Friedman, a public-relations professional whose mother also lives at Golden Slipper, claimed that since the strike began conditions for residents weren't good.
"The majority of residents are confined to their beds," said Friedman. "I was changing my mother's diapers and clothes. Her sheets were dirty."
Nappen sought to assure family members that their relatives were being taken care of during the crisis.
"But the care is not being given by the staff they know," she added, "and that's always a reason for concern."