SPRINGFIELD — The state’s largest employee union blamed staff cuts for creating poor conditions in Illinois veterans homes as it launched a statewide lobbying effort Wednesday.
Understaffing means residents at homes get cold meals, less physical therapy and, at the Quincy Veterans Home, some get only one bath a week, the minimum state standard, said Henry Bayer, executive director for the American Federation of State, County, Municipal and Employees Local 31.
"Illinois veterans deserve better. Yes, we should honor them with our words, but we should honor them with deeds as well," Bayer said. "They fought to preserve American ideals and values. They didn’t serve to reduce state headcounts."
The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs argued the "one bath a week" claim oversimplified the situation.
"It’s on a person-to-person basis on how often they are bathed. But they are bathed at least one per week," said Januari Smith, an agency spokeswoman. "If you go in and try to bathe someone and say, Hey, it’s bath time,’ and they refuse, there is nothing you can do."
Bayer said understaffing has created long waiting lists for the veterans’ homes that serve 956 residents but have empty beds. The union reports the four homes have 261 empty beds and 920 veterans on a waiting list.
Smith admits that staff cuts have been a problem.
"We are understaffed," she said. "We are seeing it statewide in nursing homes and hospitals. What the problem is that we are seeing a nursing shortage."
Opening up the additional beds without enough staff could endanger residents and possibly violate federal law, she said.
The union estimates 200 employees have been cut from veterans’ homes in LaSalle, Manteno and Quincy. The Anna Veterans Home, the state’s smallest facility, was determined to have adequate staffing levels.
The union wants the administration to reverse cuts to the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Bayer said the union doesn’t endorse any particular way for the state to raise more money.
Over the last several weeks, the union, a supporter of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his 2002 campaign, has become increasingly vocal about its dissatisfaction with the administration.
AFSCME has declined to endorse a gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary, but did give its support to state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
The legislature is considering a proposal to hire 600 prison workers during this budget year.
The union will issue reports about understaffing in other state departments in the coming weeks.