By Alex Distefano
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It's the kind of windy, chilly November afternoon that takes you by surprise, makes you dash indoors as quickly as you can. But at the Mayfair Care Center, a nursing home in Hempstead, a crowd of about 50 employees stands and shivers in the cold. It's payday and the workers are performing their Wednesday afternoon ritual: Waiting for the armored car check-cashing service to arrive. They jostle for good positions, hoping not to get up to the front too late. Once, the workers say, the truck ran out of cash and they had to wait until the following week for their money.
"This is a shame," says one woman, hugging herself for warmth.
"This is ridiculous," says another. "But you've got to get your money somehow. Especially with Thanksgiving and Christmas close by."
Employees of the 200-bed nursing home on Baldwin Road, south of downtown Hempstead, say that if they try to cash their checks in a bank, they run the risk of having them bounce. That's exactly what happened to at least 30 of them recently, say Local 1115 union representatives Sylvia Simpson and Mary McNeil. They're planning an on-site protest for Nov. 29 to bring attention to the check-bouncing situationas well as to a whole litany of complaints that includes understaffing, not being paid for sick days and a general feeling on the part of those with seniority that they are being subtly "harassed" and pushed out to make way for newer, cheaper labor.
One certified nurse's assistant, who has worked at Mayfair for 12 years and says she makes about $650 a week, says, "They're being spiteful. They're playing hardball. I'm too old to be looking for another job, but I don't want to come to work everyday worrying about petty things."
She's only one of many workers who launch into complaints about the place without much prompting. Plus, they say, they have hung a big sign in the lobby of the center, announcing plans for the protest. But Ralph Newman, CEO of the Mayfair Co., which bought the facility three years ago, insists that he's in the dark.
"I don't think there's any unrest or unhappiness among employees," he says. "I would assume that if there were problems, I would be hearing from them or their union." About the bouncing checks, he says, "There was some issue with the bank several months ago, but I'm not aware of any recent problems." Newman contends that there is no problem with cash flow and that the Mount Vernon Money Center onsite check-cashing service is provided for the "convenience" of Mayfair employees.
It's also convenient for Mayfair. Such a service, according to CEO John Pratt of the check-cashing service, gives companies an advantage: If employees cash their checks on Friday, the company doesn't have to have the money to cover the checks until Monday. And it's promoted as an advantage for employees because they don't have to take time out to leave work and go to a bank, hoping they get there in time for the money to be available immediately.
But many Mayfair employees don't see it as something to cheer about. They say they'd like to be able to just cash their checks at their own banks, but a fear of the checks bouncing keeps them tied to the armored-car option. And many say they have not been reimbursed for the $10 bouncing fees they had to pay their banks on behalf of Mayfair.
"That's not fairthey have more money than we do," says another 12-year employee, a certified nurse's aide, who says her vacation-pay check bounced recently. "They just don't know how to treat you, and you're overworked." She also says that she and everyone else had been waiting to see a raise in their pay that had been due to them since January. They finally received it last week. Newman says it took that long to finalize the contract with the union.
"I love my job," says the employee, who earns $14.75 an hour. "They just make it difficult for us. Very difficult." Many of her coworkers, senior employees, were let go recently after years of flawless service, she says, only to be replaced with new people who earn about $7.50 an hour for the same job. "Before the takeover," she says, "we were just like a family working here. They don't talk to us with no dignity at all."