It was a Thursday morning, almost a year ago when actor George Clooney made an ironic observation in the midst of millionaires enjoying an opulent breakfast spread at the tony Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel: "If you think the Sudan is tough, try the motion-picture fund."
While the affluent throngs chuckled, a union Motion Picture Home caregiver was tenderly showering an elderly studio electrician, before helping him dress.
While a lump of discarded caviar glistened alongside a half-eaten bagel, slathered in cream cheese and festooned with lox on the plate of an MPTF board member, a Motion Picture Home culinary worker was preparing trays of delicious meatloaf and mashed potatoes that were destined for those that could not recognize the food, much less feed themselves.
While Clooney and Jeff Katzenberg announced a $350 million fundraising campaign that would "sustain the charity for the foreseeable future," a Motion Picture Home union Licensed Vocational Nurse worried about the future of her job, the future of her own family and the future of quality care for motion-picture and television elderly.
And while the attendees waited patiently for the Beverly Hills Hotel valets to return Bentleys and Mercedes, a Motion Picture Home resident was given a taxi chit to shuttle him to a medical procedure, because there was nobody available in the home's transportation dept. A lonely ride for an elderly man who is used to being transported in the home's vans with cheerful and supportive drivers.
I wonder if he tipped the driver -- a detached and uninvolved stranger who answered the call to give a fellow a lift from the home to a hospital in West L.A.
The smile that was on the face of the Motion Picture and Television Fund that day was a mask.
Almost a year before this breakfast, I was part of a demonstration outside of the same hotel. Inside, the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was hosting another opulent affair to celebrate the night before the Oscars. Outside, in the rain, were family members yet again protesting the decision to close long-term care.
While the MPTF and their guests dined on haute cuisine, we ate soggy PopTarts and chewed gum. The handful of family members who that night braved the rain was bolstered by Service Employees International Union caregivers who were out showing support, providing ponchos and standing in solidarity with the family members.
While their own jobs were threatened with the closure, the SEIU caregivers were there. In droves. Dodging limos and holding signs, they marched with us, they cried with us, they laughed with us -- and they shared the victory with us.
It is in great part because of their commitment -- as well as the commitment of men like Clooney who provided a financial lifeboat for the failing fund -- that we now have some semblance of long-term care and a renewal of the MPTF's famed tagline "we take care of our own".
If you ask a Motion Picture Home caregiver how tough the "Fund" is, be prepared to hear a story that is prefaced by an admiration born of new hope in the new administration -- yet confused and disappointed by the evident lack of give and take. While the caregivers' union is fighting now for caregivers themselves, the MPTF is playing hardball by its own rules and forcing the hand of the union to strike.
You think long-term care was threatened? A strike by the SEIU will devastate the entire MPTF network of care, and it doesn't have to happen. Nurses, LVN's, Housekeeping, Radiology, Surgery Techs -- they are all ready to walk.
The SEIU represents about 500 MPTF employees, including 120 caregivers (nurses, LVN's and medical assistants). Their demands are simple, and should be met:
1. Staffing Levels: It's obvious to anyone who has family members at the Motion Picture Home that staffing levels are woefully inadequate. Although the SEIU has made some great improvements through its Labor Management Committee, the MPTF still negates the need for increased staffing. According to one negotiator, "The current management team has been great in working with us to lessen the hazard of short staffing ... but good management comes and goes but contracts stay."
The ratio of one caregiver to eight residents that is touted by the MPTF, goes up to a deplorable one caregiver to 12-to-20 residents in the night shift, according to an SEIU negotiator. I have personally seen elderly who cannot feed themselves sitting blankly while hot food grows cold in catering carts.
Additionally, a caregiver told me that "falls are up" -- a sign that the caregivers are stretched thin and can't be everywhere at once. I also have a dear friend whose mother was in the clutches of jaw clenching pain during the final hours of her life. When that son went to seek a nurse for a morphine injection, he was told that the only nurse on the floor was "on break." What if that were your mother?
2. Wages: In light of a $350 million commitment, and the recent $90 million donation thanks to Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen -- as well as the generosity of Steve Bing ($30 million) and Barry Diller (another $30 million), the caregivers are seeking only a 5 percent increase. In response to this request, the MPTF is offering a 1 percent bonus, along with rollbacks for new employees.
The MPTF also wants to freeze wages for those on or above a certain seniority level and wipe out the wage scale complete for all new hires, according to a document circulated by the SEIU. In a union town, led by union workers -- how do we allow this to happen to our brothers and sisters who perform essential services for our elderly?
3. Health Benefits: The MPTF wants the caregivers to pay an increase that would double their premiums. Obviously the incredible care that they provide is directed on a one-way street that does not reciprocate in kind. Are we going to allow this?
4. Retirement: The union wants to maintain its existing 401k and retirement options and issued a statement saying that its members "deserve to retire with dignity."
If we were talking about a municipal health-care network that was fighting for survival, I would not be writing this blog. However, we are talking about the health-care arm of one of the most powerful industries in the world, enjoying an unprecedented influx of cash, led by a Jean Hersholt "humanitarian" and visited by millionaires and billionaires whose names appear in lights all over the world.
When my mother entered the care of the Motion Picture Home, I was astounded and often moved to tears by the humanity and love that the caregivers provided to her. When the old regime was replaced by Bob Beitcher, and I received a phone call from him inviting me to hold my mother's memorial within the bosom of the facility that she called home, I knew that change was afoot.
The heart has been returned to the Motion Picture Home. But without the soul, the heart pumps hollowly and its rhythm is skewed to the muscle memory of the past.
We cannot allow the caregivers to twist in the wind while the conversation again returns to the vacuous argument of "money." It's not about money, it's about commitment. The caregivers have proven their commitment, and now it's time for all of us who protested and enjoyed their company and support to support them. A strike is imminent if we don't let our voices be heard.
A strike will devastate the level of care that motion picture and television industry members have access to, and it needn't happen. Once again, it is up to us to show the way. Once again, it is upon the shoulders of those who fought for long term care, to join the fight for the long term caregiver -- and all of those who work to support motion picture and television elderly.
- George Clooney