Milford nursing home locks out unionized workers

The operator of a Milford nursing home locked out its 78 unionized employees Tuesday following what it said was a failure of the union to accept a final contract offer or make “significant and meaningful counterproposals.”

HealthBridge Management said that trained and qualified nursing assistants and other service and maintenance workers are replacing the unionized employees at West River Health Care Center, and said the facility can operate indefinitely.

The 120-bed nursing home is one of eight in the state operated by HealthBridge. Employees at West River and five other HealthBridge facilities are represented by the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU, which has said the company’s contract proposals are unacceptable. The previous contracts for workers at the facilities expired March 16.

West River is the only HealthBridge facility to lock out workers, and company spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield said the other facilities have decided not to lock out their unionized workers. “They remain hopeful that the Union will recognize the seriousness of the situation and take steps so that they will not have to go back to giving serious consideration to the lockout option,” she said.

The company and the union have also clashed over HealthBridge’s proposal to close a Wethersfield nursing home it operates. HealthBridge has said the need to close Wethersfield Health Care Center stems from having too few residents, annual financial losses, low Medicaid payments, reduced Medicare payments and a federal and state effort to move nursing home residents into the community. The union has questioned the need to close and suggested that it was intended to influence contract negotiations at the other facilities.

In a statement about the lockout, HealthBridge said the union has “failed to take bargaining seriously, as it has refused to meet more than 2-3 days per month and has regularly failed to present any new proposals or counterproposals when bargaining sessions have taken place.” The company said it had offered wage increases of as much as 8 percent in the first year, followed by annual 1 ½ percent increases after.

The union’s offers, the statement added, are “out of step with the economic realities facing nursing homes and senior care providers.”

“It is a shame that these employees have to suffer,” Crutchfield said. “I believe that this could have been avoided if the Union had taken a different approach to these contract negotiations. But, after 10 months of bargaining with virtually no progress, we felt that we had no choice. We felt we needed to take this action to try to bring these negotiations to a conclusion.”

Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said that the union could not accept HealthBridge’s proposal, which she said would “destroy the standards of living that people have struggled 30 years to establish.”

She said the wage increases HealthBridge proposed would have been offset by cuts in worker hours, increased health insurance premium costs and converting the pension plan into a 401k, leaving them with less overall compensation.

The union has settled contracts with 44 other nursing homes this year, Chernoff said, with terms similar to those it has discussed with HealthBridge.

She said the lockout suggested the company had no concern for the nursing home’s residents.

“Even if every single person they bring in is highly competent, they’re not the people who know the residents,” Chernoff said. “They’re not the people who have the relationships with families, and that’s an important part of any care, but particularly long-term care,” with residents who have dementia, Alzheimer’s and other conditions that make knowing the people key to serving their needs.

The other HealthBridge homes in negotiations with 1199 are Danbury Health Care Center, Long Ridge of Stamford, Newington Health Care Center, Westport Health Care Center and Wethersfield Health Care Center.