Photo by Sarah Mirk

THE LAURELHURST VILLAGE nursing home cares for hundreds of old folks right in the heart of Portland's most progressive neighborhoods: the brick building towers on SE Stark between Sunnyside and Laurelhurst. But workers inside the facility say the nursing home management has recently launched a campaign that would shock neighbors. According to staff, Laurelhurst Village is stamping out a fledgling union, culminating in the firing of a former employee of the month-turned-union organizer named Elizabeth Lehr.

Lehr is a petite redhead who worked as the receptionist at Laurelhurst for almost two years before the director fired her on April 2. Ten days earlier, Lehr had signed her union card, pledging support for the Service Employees International Union, Local 503 (SEIU).

"I was really well liked there, I knew everyone's name. I think they were threatened that I was part of the union," says Lehr, who filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board two weeks ago. "I was organizing because I love my job. I want to go back."

The attempt to unionize Laurelhurst Village and the alleged pushback from management gives a glimpse into the lives of an often overlooked group of workers. Nursing is traditionally a low-paid, female-dominated job demanding long hours and intense physical and emotional work. Andrea Glaser, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Laurelhurst Village, says 90 percent of her coworkers are female, many of them immigrants.

"The job is seen as expendable, supervisors don't listen," says Glaser, who is exhausted after getting five elderly patients out of bed, bathed, and dressed for breakfast before 8:30 am each morning.

According to Glaser, hourly wages for CNAs at Laurelhurst start at $11.50 an hour. At Oregon's 26 union facilities (just a small chunk of Oregon's 143 nursing homes) starting wage for the same job is $15, according to the SEIU. The healthcare offered for low-level workers at Laurelhurst is so poor that many decide it is pointless to enroll. Glaser says supervisors have repeatedly dismissed her concerns that CNAs are working with too many patients for too little money.

"A lot of people in nursing homes have very little voice and the people who provide the care for them also have very little voice," says Glaser.

"I've never been a pro- or anti-union person, but this seemed like our best chance. The management of that facility has fallen through on every promise that they made," says Lehr. A year after being chosen as Laurelhurst's employee of the month, Lehr signed up with the SEIU, hoping that collective action could win low-level employees better conditions. "The patients see us more than their families. They need to see that we're taken care of and happy," she says.

While off shift, Lehr and Glaser came into work on April 1 to post a notice in the break room about a union meeting. A manager spotted them and asked them to leave. When the pair refused, Lehr's managers took a different approach. The next day, Lehr says she was called into Director of Operations Hannah Austin's office and summarily fired for insubordination and allegedly stealing coworkers' contact information—a claim Lehr says is completely fabricated.

"They knew I wasn't scared of them," she says. "The minute I began to speak up for myself, they tossed me out the door."

Days later, coworkers within Laurelhurst Village put up bright blue signs demanding "democracy in our workplace," quoting 10 employees who disagreed with the firing.

"It's obvious Elizabeth got fired because of her support for the union," reads a quote from worker Tomas Olivera. Sources say management called in all the workers on the flier for questioning and removed the signs.

Austin would not comment on this story, which she said was about "personnel matters," but denies that the nursing home retaliated against any employees for union activity or took down the protest posters.

While some workers put on a brave face, the union says Lehr's firing has left its campaign "stone cold." Over 70 Laurelhurst employees signed up with the SEIU in the month before Lehr's firing. Only three have joined in the month after.