Judge rules HealthBridge violated federal law

In the first decision expected in a series of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints against HealthBridge Management, a judge has ruled that the nursing home corporation violated federal labor law by "interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees" of nursing homes who have been on strike since July 3 against unfair labor practices.

In a 23-page decision, administrative law judge Steven Davis ruled that HealthBridge violated the National Labor Relations Act when it prohibited employees from exercising their rights under federal labor law to wear stickers and post flyers indicating that HealthBridge had unlawfully cut caregivers' working conditions, wages and benefits. Employees were told to remove signs and insignia regarding the complaint since it "did not look good in the facility" -- a justification the judge determined to be a pretext.

The NLRB issued five federal complaints against HealthBridge for massive violations of labor law; the most recent complaint was filed shortly after the strike began on July 3 across five nursing homes in Connecticut, after the New Jersey-based company ended negotiations on labor contract renewals and cut $30 million in wages and benefits for employees over the next six years.

Under the new contract, HealthBridge stopped making contributions to employees' existing retirement plans, unilaterally cut working hours and time off, and forced employees into different, prohibitively health insurance plans that will leave most workers unable to afford coverage for their families.

Although the new contract promises a 9 percent raise, workers would lose their half hour paid lunch. "If a caregiver was making $15 an hour previously, they would now earn $16.35 per hour, but not be paid for lunch. So, instead of being paid for 40 hours a week, workers would now be paid for 37.5 hours. And in the end, all you get is an increment of $13," explained Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199.

HealthBridge also replaced the pension, into which it had been putting 8 percent of payroll, with a match to 401(k) contributions which, at its most generous, would be 0.75 percent of pay. Previously, after 20 years of services, workers were entitled to receive $858 every month for the rest of their life. Under the new 401(k) plan, they will actually lose $18 every week. "Even after the 'raise' workers are now going to lose $169 every week," said Chernoff.

And this is not it. The new contract's health insurance plan has co-pays and deductibles and workers are now required to spend $8,530 annually in premiums for medical, dental and vision. This means a loss of $164 from the worker's paycheck every week. "Moreover, caregivers have lost their overtime pay, all their sick days and personal days and their 10 days of vacation so it is not just about the money. It is a matter of unfair labor practice," said Chernoff.

The labor contract with the company ended in March this year, however, it had been negotiating with the union for 17 months to get them to agree to the concessions. Failing to do so, HealthBridge unilaterally decided to impose the new contract on June 17, 2012. As a result, some 700 staff members at nursing homes in Danbury, Milford, Newington, Stamford and Westporat - owned by HealthBridge management - went on strike ten days after the decision was imposed on July 03.

Chernoff said that the kinds of changes to health care and pensions the company implemented are so draconian that they do not fit fair bargaining standards.

Resident care suffering

As union workers spend the day picketing in shifts from early morning to late at night fighting for their rights, HealthBridge has hired replacement workers to ensure the centers continue providing the highest quality care. But this is far from the truth, say family members of residents.

Susan Huorn's father is a resident at the West River Health Care Center in Milford, one of five nursing homes where union caregivers are currently engaged in a strike, and where HealthBridge locked out workers for four months, which the NLRB says was an illegal action.

"I believe having hired replacement aides is sacrificing the quality of care for my father," Huorn said. "They be 'qualified' but they don't know the residents-they don't know my father." Hourn's 73-year-old father is a stroke patient and is mostly paralysed. "He cannot talk so he is unable to tell me how he is suffering, but when he stares I can tell he is unhappy."

Huorn said she visits him at least four times a week and each time found a different caregiver assigned to assist him.  "It hurts me to see that he is not clean and is not being taken care of by that one caregiver who understood his needs."

Normally, every certified nursing assistant, or CNA, is assigned 10 to 12 permanent patients whom they closely work with.

In another center in Danbury, a resident lost her life because the replacement worker was unaware of the patient's dietary needs. "The resident was given regular textured food instead of pureed food which was necessary for the patient to prevent aspiration that could lead to pneumonia," said Regina Dillon, 67, a nurse at the center. As predicted, the patient died within a few days from pneumonia.

Residents and family members are complaining of having to deal with the replacement workers who are no less than 'strangers' to them. "We heard complaints that residents' hygiene is suffering the most," said Eva Fal, 47, a dietary agent at the Newington center for the past 16 years. "A family member complained that her mother had not been cleaned for six days."

Dillon added that since most residents at these centers are patients of alzheimer's and dementia, any change in their daily routine creates anxiety among them. "We are very concerned about the residents' health. Our patients are like our family and even though some understand our struggle and support us, they are facing difficulty in getting used to the new nursing assistants. They have learnt to associate with us and confide in us and this sudden shift in caregivers' attitude towards them is upsetting them."

Nurses, nursing assistants, laundry, dietary, housekeeping and other supporting staff are all in agreement. "We will return to work tomorrow if the company agrees to let us work under the terms of the old contract, but we will not settle for these concessions," said Fal.

"Healthbridge is not just destroying our lives, but that of the residents and the community. They are putting the lives of all these patients at risk which is unacceptable."

Strikers were also disbelieving of the accusations leveled by HealthBridge last week about endangering residents' lives and speculated that "the sabotage was staged to make the union look bad."

"Among other things, they accused us of switching wristbands among residents when that is physically not possible," said Dillon. "Wristbands cannot be removed without destroying them and each is designed according to the patient's wrist size. It is impossible to 'switch' them," said Dillon.

Chernoff added that no concrete evidence was found to the allegations by the Danbury police nor was she approached by the Department of Public Health for any investigation into the incident.

Dillon believes the nursing company is finding excuses for their own negligence at the centers especially because the nursing staff hired seems inadequately trained to deal with the residents. Most of them, she said, inexperienced fresh graduates from nursing schools who are not familiar with the job.  Due to the strike call, the replacement workers did not have enough time for orientation either.

Chernoff said that it was "absurd" to think the new staff could provide the same quality care. "Our workers are professionals who have worked with patients and their families to build trust. There is no way the level of care by the new CNAs can match our workers' care.''

Union members feel HealthBridge is not concerned about the well-being of residents, which is why it is only focusing on its long term profits from the concession. "It's a shame that corporate greed is more important than quality care," said Huorn. "They should stop wasting time and money breaking the law, and should spend these resources bringing stability to the caregivers and my father."

Wages cut going to charity in NYU?

According to a press statement by New England healthcare Service Employees International Union (SEIU), HealthBridge caregivers visited the Straus Institute at NYU Law School on Wednesday, endowed with millions by owner Daniel Straus while his company cuts $30 million in wages and benefits for caregivers in Connecticut.

More than 100 caregivers have appealed to the institute's director, Professor Joseph H.H. Weiler, and requested his help to end the three-week-old strike. 50 of them traveled to New York City carrying signs that read: 'HealthBridge Caregivers Shouldn't Have to Pay for Daniel Straus' Philanthropy.'

Sophia Forbes, a CNA at Newington Health Care Center for 19 years, was also at the protest.  Asked what she would say if she had the opportunity to speak with Prof. Weiler, she said, "I would just tell him what we're asking for. Like we say on the picket line: 'Be fair to those who care.'  We're asking for HealthBridge to sit down and negotiate a contract fairly."

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