[This story was updated at 4:10 p.m.]
Connecticut’s largest health care employee union issued a new threat Thursday, setting a deadline of June 3 for more than 2,500 nursing home workers to strike if additional funding for pay raises isn’t added to the state budget.
The union, New England Health Care Employees, District 1199 SEIU, has asked for a 4 percent increase in wages for all nursing home caregivers industrywide – including non-bargaining workers – in each of the next two fiscal years. This would cost $40 million annually, labor officials said. About half of that would be borne by the state and half would be covered by federal Medicaid payments to Connecticut.
The labor group had previously set a deadline of May 1 to walk off the job, but abandoned that plan after it received an “encouraging” letter from Gov. Ned Lamont two weeks ago asking for time to negotiate.
Lamont’s budget proposal did not include any additional funding for nursing home workers, and District 1199 leaders said Thursday that “the General Assembly has not responded accordingly to our union’s demands.”
The 2,500 or so workers who voted in favor of a strike are spread across 20 facilities. Five additional nursing homes with more than 600 employees may join them when the voting process is complete, officials said.
District 1199 represents 26,000 health care workers in Connecticut, including about 7,000 nursing home employees.
“This is a last resort for workers who care dearly about the residents and patients they serve every day,” said Rob Baril, the union president. “Some of our members are making as little as $10.93 per hour, or just 83 cents above the bare minimum wage. This is totally unacceptable in a wealthy state like Connecticut.”
The Connecticut Department of Social Services is required to reassess nursing home costs at least once every four years, and to provide inflationary increases to homes in the years when a formal reassessment isn’t done. The industry did receive a 2 percent increase in state funding this fiscal year and a 3 percent increase in 2015-16.
But governors and legislatures often skip this inflationary adjustment in tough economic times. Lamont has proposed waiving it next year and in 2021. Nursing homes would lose out on $28.8 million next year and $61.2 million in 2021 if lawmakers agree to waive it.
The union has said that about 4,000 of its members – including the 2,500 set to strike – have been working for nearly two years under expired contracts.
Lamont and legislators are struggling to close major budget deficits projected in each of the next two fiscal years. Spending – unless adjusted – is on pace to exceed revenues by $1.7 billion next year and by $2 billion in 2021.
But they also have nearly $300 million in extra resources to work with after receiving some good news about the state income tax since the April 15 filing deadline. New estimates call for the state to finish the fiscal year with an even larger surplus than originally anticipated.
The state’s budget reserve, commonly known as the rainy day fund, already had been on pace to swell from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion after June 30. Based on the new tax data, the governor’s budget office now says the potential reserve is $300 million larger.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, told reporters Wednesday that he hopes Lamont and the union will reach an agreement.
“We do not want to see a strike for nursing home workers in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “It has not only a negative budget impact for us – it’ll be money going out the door for strike preparations that we’ll never get back again – the quality of care and the type of care the individuals are getting will be impacted. And the workers themselves … they’re not going to have the income. That’s not what we want.”
A push at the Capitol
More than 100 nursing home managers and some of their employees descended on the state Capitol Thursday afternoon to press lawmakers for an increase in the Medicaid rate, which would allow them to hand out and receive pay raises they say are long overdue.
Nursing homes receive a fixed amount of state aid for Medicaid patients, who make up the majority of the facilities’ patient pool. For the last decade, that level of aid has barely budged.
The employees, a mix of unionized and non-unionized workers, made the same request of legislators Thursday as District 1199 members have – a 4 percent increase in wages industrywide. That would help the facilities compete with less-demanding jobs that offer similar salaries.
“We want to remain competitive in the workforce and be able to offer wages and benefits that are attractive and put us on par with retail establishments or restaurants,” said Beth Schmeizl, director of operations for Athena Health Care Systems. “It takes a special kind of person to do our work, and we need additional funding to be able to differentiate ourselves from those other industries.”
Competition for skilled workers, such as certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses, has been fierce in the state’s care sector as wages remain stagnant. At the same time, the patient demographics have changed. Workers said they are now caring for more young people with complex medical issues and substance-abuse disorders.
“When I first started in nursing, it was mostly palliative care or custodial care. That’s absolutely not the case anymore,” said Lori Hinkson, director of clinical services for Athena. “When I’m admitting patients who are my kids’ age, that’s a whole different ball game and the staff have to be re-educated on how to care for these people.”
Leaders of about 50 nursing homes attended previously scheduled meetings with state senators and representatives Thursday to make their case.
“We need resources to deliver the quality of care that everyone wants and expects,” said Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities. “If we have those resources, the downstream issues – collective bargaining, minimum wage, the increased complexity among the residents we serve – all become addressed.”