Denise Blacknell and David Hickman of the JB Johnson nursing home.

The complaints of some of the workers at JB Johnson Nursing Center are probably familiar to many working stiffs: the pay sucks, the benefits are horrible, and the boss is greedy.

But JB Johnson isn’t like the firms in the business of flipping burgers or mowing grass. For one thing, its workers care for some of the District’s most vulnerable—the elderly and the poor, many with mental illnesses. For another reason, its workers’ meager salaries are essentially paid for by you: The funding for JB Johnson, which is operated by a private company, VMT Long Term Care, comes almost entirely through public funding.

And as a result of those things, the center is currently the subject of a certain amount of political controversy.

To some of the workers, it’s an old-fashioned case of ill treatment of labor by an overpaid boss. Certified Nursing Assistants at JB Johnson make a maximum of $11.77 an hour, regardless of how many years they’ve worked there, staff say. Bernice Blacknell, a CNA, says the home is constantly understaffed, meaning she can’t give proper attention to the patients. She says she uses part of her meager paycheck to buy patients lotion, shampoo, perfume, and cologne, because many of them don’t like the soap the home provides.

David Hickman, another CNA, says the home’s equipment is always breaking and echoes Blacknell’s complaint about staff size. “I have a buddy who works at the dog pound,” he says. “He has more time to work for dogs than I have to work for human beings.” Hickman says he’d look for work elsewhere but he couldn’t live with himself if he abandoned his patients. “They were excellent Americans, they paid their bills on time, and they even trusted the government. Now, it seems like their trust was misplaced,” he says.

VMT’s owner, Solanges Vivens, says her facilities are well-run, consistently receive high marks from federal evaluators, and her staff is happy—save for a few “agitators.”

JB Johnson’s staff voted 165-0 in February of 2010 to join the Service Employees International Union. But the union’s efforts to negotiate a contract with Vivens have stalled out over the workers’ demand for a pay hike, according to the union. In the meantime, Vivens paid law firm Epstein Becker Green nearly $75,000 in the first half of 2010 for help against the union, according to a recent report by the District’s Office of the Inspector General.

And that’s where the nursing home’s public funding stream makes the story tricky. According to the IG, the money that went to the law firm in the name of anti-union efforts technically belonged to the city, because at that time, the nursing home was technically owned by the District. That would be the same District whose mayor was elected last year with heavy union support.

Up until recently, Vivens also operated the city-owned Washington Center for Aging Services. When employees voted to unionize there, VMT paid $107,258.77 to another law firm, Littler Mendelson, to defeat them. All told, the IG says VMT used more than $175,000 in money that belonged to the District on legal efforts to defeat union efforts.

VMT has argued before the Contract Appeals Board that it should be able to use its operating money to fight the unionizing efforts. VMT says it’s in the city’s best interests to keep labor costs down. Had workers unionized at WCAS, VMT argues, the city would have had to pay an extra $1.5 million a year.

VMT’s labor troubles don’t end with its employees’ efforts to unionize. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor found that VMT had underpaid more than 600 workers at WCAS by $3.2 million, according to the IG’s report. VMT was able to negotiate the final amount down to about $1.7 million in back pay and $140,000 in taxes. The company used District money to make the payments, saying they count as employee compensation that should be included as operating costs.

Not so fast, says the IG, which characterizes the labor department decision as a “fine” that VMT ought to pay out of its management fees. The report notes that in 2008, VMT’s attorney sent a letter to the District saying VMT would be “driven into ruin” by being forced to pay the higher wage. At the same time, according to the report, the company paid Vivens, its sole shareholder, nearly $1.8 million.

Vivens says the IG’s description of the labor department’s ruling as a fine is way off. “A fine you pay to the Department of Labor, not to the employees.” She added that VMT has multiple interests and the money she made as a shareholder is an unrelated matter. “That’s VMT’s money. It has nothing to do with the two nursing homes.”

The D.C. Office of Aging says it is working with the District’s attorney general to try to recoup back pay ordered by the feds. The city also withheld payments to VMT in order to recoup the money the company paid to law firms to fight union efforts. On top of all that, the city also says VMT neglected to collect $2.8 million in Medicare bills and overpaid a subcontractor. Vivens says VMT followed industry standards and disputes the IG’s figures.

All told, the IG says, the District could have avoided at least $2.7 million in contract costs if VMT had been better run and better monitored by city agencies.

Vivens, in her written response, called the IG’s report “unfounded and even malicious” and said VMT has worked “tirelessly and faithfully” and been a “great partner” for the District.

If the VMT story sounds familiar, it’s because an almost identical drama played out with another publicly funded health care business last year. Workers at Individual Development Inc., which runs group homes for the developmentally disabled and is owned by ultra-connected lobbyist David Wilmot, voted to unionize after complaining of low pay and poor working conditions. Wilmot mounted an aggressive campaign to convince his workers not to unionize. The SEIU filed a labor grievance against the company for allegedly dismissing a worker who was promoting the union. And an IG report said Wilmot received “excessive compensation.” He was paid upwards of $300,000 a year by IDI while also representing firms like Walmart and Comcast as one of the city’s best-compensated lobbyists.

IDI agreed to pay $180,000 earlier this year to settle a lawsuit with the city over alleged improper patient care. A representative from SEIU says that the workers still don’t have a contract with IDI but that “talks are progressing.”
When the troubles at IDI were last in the news, Mayor-elect Vince Gray—an erstwhile union supporter who dedicated much of his adult life to working with the developmentally disabled—declined to open fire on Wilmot, who he went on to appoint to his transition team. IDI, meanwhile, continues its group home business.

Vivens has considerably less political cachet. LL wonders whether that means her own tangles with unions and the IG will have a different outcome. CP

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Photograph by Darrow Montgomery