Kara Dwyer, center, and other protestors with healthcare union SEIU 1100NE, ask for better treatment of nursing home, long-term care, home care, group home workers, including health insurance, better wages and proper PPE. Dwyer has three jobs to support herself and her son as a single mother. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril, center, says members so far have voted overwhelmingly to strike.

Connecticut continues to slide closer to a major nursing home strike with initial union votes at 33 facilities overwhelmingly favoring a strike, and balloting at 11 more homes scheduled to begin shortly after May 1.

Rob Baril, president of SEIU District 1199 New England —which represents about 5,000 nursing home workers in the state — said his members “have been stretched beyond their breaking points” by the health and economic risks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Baril provided the strike vote update one week after state and nursing home leaders disclosed they’d begun contingency planning to guard against a major work stoppage at congregate care facilities.

“This is not a joke, this is not a game,” Baril said, adding that his members are tired of “being treated like they’re expendable.”

The union says the budget Gov. Ned Lamont proposed for the next two fiscal years doesn’t include sufficient funds for nursing home care.

“That shows the real disconnect with the administration,” Baril said, adding it is difficult to understand given that 22 union members — including nursing home workers and other caregivers — died from the coronavirus, and many others have gotten sick, sometimes because they weren’t given adequate protective gear.

Union spokesman Pedro Zayas said negotiations will continue and the union has served no facilities with a formal strike notice to date.

Union members at 51 nursing homes across Connecticut are working under contracts that expired March 15. And between now and early 2022, that number could grow to 63 nursing homes.

Of that total, workers at 33 homes will have completed strike votes by May 1, and Baril said the ballots cast so far, on average, have been 98% in favor of a work stoppage.

Staff at another 11 nursing homes are scheduled to begin strike votes shortly after May 1, Zayas said, and that number could grow.

A strike vote is a required prerequisite, but it doesn’t commit a union to a work stoppage. Similarly, even if a strike notice is served, talks can continue, and the union can suspend a strike even when the notice period expires.

But the head of the state’s largest nursing home association and key officials in the state departments of Social Services and Public Health all said recently that the potential for a strike is very real.

“I am not forecasting that [a strike] will happen, but I do want to say that is a major concern, a major threat,” Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, told the state’s Nursing Home Financial Advisory Committee on April 14. 

Barrett, whose association represents more than 140 facilities, said as many as 30% of all nursing home residents could be affected if a strike happens. He did not comment Friday immediately after Baril made his statements.

Kate McEvoy, chairwoman of the advisory committee and director of the Division of Health Services within the Department of Social Services, said at that meeting that the administration has been contacted by some homes worried about their ability to secure contingency staff during the pandemic.

And Barbara Cass, who heads facility licensing and investigations for the state Department of Public Health, said “active planning” is already underway to ensure patient care is maintained in the event of a strike.

Nursing homes in Connecticut have lost millions of dollars since the pandemic struck 13 months ago, due not only to increased health, safety and staffing expenses but also because of lost revenue. A significant portion of the industry’s revenue comes from patients temporarily assigned to homes for rehabilitation or recovery after surgery, yet the pandemic led many patients to delay operations and procedures whenever possible.

Lawrence G. Santilli, chairman of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, warned Lamont in a March 22 letter that the industry has entered an unprecedented time of financial instability.

Nursing home occupancy is down 15% from pre-pandemic levels, and federal and state Medicaid funding has long been inadequate to meet patient care costs.

On average, more than 80% of nursing home revenues involve patients whose care is covered by federal and state Medicaid dollars. Before the pandemic, though, that share was closer to 70%.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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