Judge rules HealthBridge violated federal law

An administrative law judge has issued a decision on two issues raised in a hearing on the controversy between New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management and the employees of five Connecticut nursing homes.

Some 600 employees of the homes have been on strike since July 3 to protest what they call unfair labor practices.

Administrative Law Judge Steven Davis, in a 23-page ruling issued July 20, agreed with the National Labor Relations Board and New England Healthcare Employees Union, District 1199, that HealthBridge violated the National Labor Relations Act by preventing workers from wearing stickers or distributing flyers advertising that HealthBridge has been the subject of a labor board complaint.

But in the second issue, the judge sided with HealthBridge.

Since the company’s contract with its five Connecticut health care centers — in Danbury, Milford, Newington, Stamford and Westport — expired March 16, 2011, the homes stopped deducting union dues from the employees’ paychecks. The company also refused to remit those funds to the union.

The judge said this was a fair act.

“The union failed to note that in the same decision, the judge rules against them on a more significant claim,” said Lisa Crutchfield, spokesperson for HealthBridge management. “The SEIU contended that the issue of collective bargaining agreement was also an unfair labor pracitce, but the court has ruled that the centers were acting legally.”

The NLRB has filed a series of complaints against HealthBridge – the most recent on July 6 – charging the company with committing unfair labor practices and fail(ing) and refus(ing) to bargain in good faith.”

HealthBridge and the union had been negotiating for 17 months. “When HealthBridge could not get the union to agree to the concession, they imposed the new contract on June 17 that led to a large-scale strike by over 600 staff members across the five nursing homes,” said Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the union.

The contract proposed by HealthBridge would cut $30 million in wages and benefits for employees over the next six years, she said — a loss of $169 from each worker’s weekly paycheck.

Under the plan proposed by HealthBridge, the company would stop contributing to employees’ retirement plans, cut workers’ hours and their paid lunch and time off. It also would force employees into different health insurance plans that would leave most workers unable to afford coverage for their families, Chernoff said.

The nursing home staff has demanded a renewal of its previous contract, but HealthBridge had refused.

In an emailed press statement, the company has charged the union with waging an economic strike, and HealthBridge has hired a replacement staff at all five nursing homes.

But union workers insist that their job action is an unfair labor practice strike and not an economic one.

“We have lost our overtime pay, all our sick and personal days as well as 10 days of vacation…so it is not just about the money. It is a matter of unfair labor practice,” said Eva Fal, 47, a dietary agent at the Newington home for 16 years.

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

For more than three weeks, union workers have been picketing outside the nursing homes, posting flyers and wearing stickers to raise awareness of the NLRB complaint and draw support from the community.

HealthBridge ordered them to remove signs and insignia because they “did not look good in the facility,” according to a union press release. But Davis, the administrative law judge, said that under the federal labor law, the employees had a right to do so.

“The NLRB is also asking a judge to order the company to pull its imposed contract and to reimburse its employees for the wages and benefits lost due to its implementation,” Chernoff said.

An administrative law judge is expected to issue a final ruling in the case in September. Until then, employees are likely to remain on strike, she said.