Long-term care workers block the intersection at the Department of Social Services in March 2021 to draw attention to the treatment of caregivers. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Kara O’Dwyer, center, and other protestors with health care union SEIU 1199 New England gathered in April to ask for better treatment of nursing home, long-term care, home care, group home workers, including health insurance, better wages and proper PPE. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Kara O’Dwyer, center, and other protestors with health care union SEIU 1199 New England gathered in April to ask for better treatment of nursing home, long-term care, home care, group home workers, including health insurance, better wages and proper PPE. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The state’s largest health care workers’ union warned 33 nursing homes that about 3,400 of its members are poised to strike in two weeks.

The strike notices, served on facilities owned by RegalCare, Genesis HealthCare, Autumn Lake Healthcare and iCare Management chains, could be the beginning of a larger work stoppage this spring.

But a strike notice does not guarantee employees will walk off the job on May 14. And if there is a work stoppage, it could be indefinite — or it could be a fixed period, such as one or two days.

SEIU District 1199 New England reported in March members at 51 nursing homes in Connecticut have been working under contracts that expired March 15. And between now and early 2022, that could grow to 63 facilities, involving roughly 4,500 workers.

“Connecticut’s long-term care system relies on poverty wages. By going on strike, we are telling nursing home operators and the state of Connecticut that we are not willing to carry the yoke of poverty any longer,” said Rob Baril, president of District 1199 New England, SEIU. “It’s time for nursing home bosses and state leaders to pay these workers what they deserve. The majority-women workforce that provides care in these nursing homes and the people who depend on their services are not expecting any less.”

Of those homes that have conducted strike votes to date, the tally — on average — was about 98% in favor of a work stoppage, the union reported.

The union represents workers in many positions in long-term care facilities, including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, receptionists, dietary aides, housekeeping and laundry staff.

“Nursing home workers are more united than ever. Caring for others and for each other during COVID-19 has opened people’s eyes. We know that our work is too important to keep us in poverty. We deserve to make a living wage,” said Cambar Edwards, a CNA at Kimberly Hall North in Windsor. “We are human beings. And the people receiving care in nursing homes should be confident that staff is well paid and that there is sufficient staff to look out for them.”

But even as strike notices went out Friday, state officials got good fiscal news that could help them avert a work stoppage.

A new report from analysts increased the projected surplus for the current fiscal year by more than $400 million and expected revenues for the next two-year budget cycle by more than $1.6 billion.

And though Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, didn’t pledge any specific funding increase for nursing homes in a joint statement following the forecast, they hinted that Connecticut has the resources to avoid a strike.

“These frontline workers are true heroes of the pandemic, and Connecticut owes them a debt of more than gratitude,” the leaders wrote. “They literally put their lives on the line during this pandemic. It also stands to reason that providing adequate funding to nursing homes and long-term care facilities will ensure continued operations that are safe and deliver quality care.”

Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities — which represents more than 140 facilities — warned the state’s Nursing Home Financial Advisory Committee on April 14 of the potential for a strike.

Barbara Cass, who heads facility licensing and investigations for the state Department of Public Health, said at the April 14 meeting that “active planning” was 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.

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee recommended $34.4 million in additional funding for nursing homes in the next state budget, but Barrett said it falls well short of what’s needed to avert a strike, or to reverse the other financial pressures placed on facilities.

“A major investment in nursing homes is needed now bridge to the other side of the pandemic, and even more resources are needed to address collective bargaining issues” he said Friday. “It is simply unreasonable and unrealistic to expect nursing home operators to enter into costly multi-year increased funding commitments to address collective bargaining issues without the resources needed to pay for those increased costs.”

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.

In February 2020, just before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Connecticut, nursing homes were 87% occupied on average, state data show. A year later, the average occupancy had fallen to 72%.

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%.

While cases of COVID-19 have largely declined in nursing homes as residents and staff receive the coronavirus vaccine, the disease is still circulating, and the system has faced issues of understaffing during the pandemic. Advocates have said the staffing issues hinder resident care. More than 14,000 infections were reported among nursing home residents during the pandemic, and 3,875 have died.

The union will take its case directly to Lamont on Saturday during a noon rally outside of the governor’s residence on Prospect Avenue in Hartford.

The Recovery For All Coalition, an organization of labor and faith organizations that includes SEIU District 1199 New England, has been pressing state officials for more tax relief for the poor and greater state spending on health care, social services and communities in need.

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.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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