Malloy urges nursing homes, union to settle contract dispute

The governor weighed in Monday on a contract dispute between a nursing home chain and the union representing its employees, urging HealthBridge Management and the New England Health Care Workers’ Union District 1199, SEIU, to reach an agreement.

Last week, HealthBridge locked out 78 unionized workers at its West River Health Care Center in Milford, saying the union had failed to accept its final offer or put forward meaningful proposals of its own. The company said it had offered wage increases of as much as 8 percent in the first year, to be followed by annual 1 ½ percent increases. The contracts for workers at six HealthBridge facilities expired in March.

The union countered that it had settled contracts with 44 other nursing homes and that HealthBridge’s proposal would “destroy the standards of living” workers had achieved. Increased contributions for health care premiums and reduced hours in HealthBridge’s proposal would offset any hourly wage increase, the union said.

“Lockouts, strikes, picket lines — these things come at a great cost to both the workforce and the people they are supposed to serve,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement released by his office. “It also damages the critically important relationship between the healthcare worker and the senior citizen that not only relies on their care, but also on the companionship that comes along with it.”

Malloy echoed the union’s argument that it had reached agreements with the owners of more than 40 nursing homes, adding that “it seems that a fair, reasonable contract pattern has been established that works for management and labor.”

The governor also suggested that HealthBridge would have an extra financial cushion to help reach a deal because of funding from the state’s provider tax, which collects money from nursing homes, then redistributes it, generating federal matching funds. Through the provider tax, HealthBridge will get an additional $800,000 back this year, Malloy said.

“While these are certainly challenging financial times for all institutions, one would think an influx of that amount of money would allow for a contract to be reached,” Malloy said.

He added a plug for his administration’s own record in labor relations, citing the agreement reached this year with state employee unions “that allows for the continued provision of state services in a sustainable fashion.”

“I am urging Healthbridge and 1199 to do the same,” he said.

HealthBridge spokeswoman Lisa Crutchfield responded in a statement Monday afternoon, saying the company appreciated Malloy’s call for a settlement, but that most of the contracts involving other companies were settled before an 11.1 percent Medicare cut to nursing home rates took effect in October. She added that the union was seeking provisions not included in contracts with some other providers, and said it was making “unreasonable contract demands” for paid lunch periods and free health insurance.

The locked out employees can return to work when the union agrees to the company’s contract proposal, Crutchfield said.

Also Monday, the union announced plans for a candlelight vigil outside the Milford nursing home Tuesday that it said would be attended by residents, residents’ families, clergy and elected officials.

“Since HealthBridge locked out workers on December 13, residents report their lives have been turned upside-down,” the announcement said. “Their experienced caregivers, whom they view as family, have been torn away from them, replaced by out-of-town temp workers who don’t know the residents or their needs. Speakers will call on HealthBrige to stop squeezing money from front-line caregivers and start investing in quality care.”