Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly thought they eliminated the threat of a major nursing home strike last spring when they pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into an industry battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the risk of Connecticut’s first nursing home strike since 2012 — albeit a small one — reared its head Tuesday when the state’s largest health care workers union put five homes on notice for a work stoppage on April 22.
SEIU District 1199 New England served notices to three facilities owned by National Health Care Associates: Bloomfield Health Care Center, Hebrew Center for Health & Rehabilitation in West Hartford and Maple View Health and Rehabilitation Center in Rocky Hill. It also notified two independent facilities, Windsor Health and Rehabilitation Center and Avery Heights Senior Living in Hartford.
That’s far smaller in scope than the potential strike Lamont and lawmakers averted in 2021, when about 4,500 caregivers across 140 facilities were prepared to stop working at more than 50 homes.
This time, nearly 450 union members in five nursing homes have given notice. Those employees have been working under contracts that expired between March 2021 and Jan. 1, said Jesse Martin, vice president of the union’s nursing home division.
And though Martin did not provide specifics of closed door negotiations, he said management has failed to offer competitive wages, affordable health care benefits and changes to ensure reasonable working conditions, despite a significant boost in state funding.
These workers were “heroes of the pandemic,” risking their lives and their families’ lives to protect Connecticut’s vulnerable elderly, but “these employers still treat them less than human.”
“It’s just sad to see how we are underpaid and overworked with no respect,” said Yvonne Foster, a certified nursing aide with Windsor Health & Rehabilitation.
The union also has filed unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against management targeted in the five potential strikes.
Martin said management at all five homes have tried to negotiate directly with the workers rather than through the union.
He also charged that homes run by National Health Care and Windsor Health & Rehabilitation have been training temporary nursing aides but not paying them hourly wages for the work they perform.
A spokeswoman for the three homes owned by National Health Care wrote in a statement that it has met the union’s proposal to increase minimum pay rates between 15.5% and 20.5% by July 1, 2023, offered a 4.5% increase for staffers already earning more than the minimum pay, and committed to use state funding to support a defined contribution retirement plan.
“We strongly believe that a strike is not the answer,” she added. “We believe the parties should focus on reaching agreement on a new contract and avoiding a strike. We are committed to continuing to bargain in good faith to get there. In the meantime, we are doing everything necessary to limit disruption to our residents and ensure patient care is in no way affected.”
Regarding the charges of unfair labor practices, National Health Care added that “While we will work with the NLRB as part of their investigation of the charges, we believe the NLRB will conclude that the charges are without merit.”
Lara Alatise, owner and administrator for Windsor Health & Rehabilitation called the union’s decision to issue a strike warning “troubling” given that management has offered to boost wages 13% over the next four years.
“This wage proposal, and other similar proposals, demonstrates Windsor Health has been committed to — and will continue to be committed to — the collective bargaining process,” Alatise wrote in a statement.
She also wrote that union claims of staff working without pay are untrue, adding that “We hope that despite the threat of a strike, all parties to these negotiations can continue to focus on what truly matters most: Our vulnerable patients’ health and well-being.”
William Thompson, administrator and vice president for Avery Heights, wrote in a statement that management “values the tireless and compassionate care provided by all our staff in service to the residents of our community. We will continue to negotiate in good faith in hopes of reaching a settlement that is fair and equitable.”
Thompson added that if no agreement is reached before the April 22 deadline, “Avery Heights will continue to ensure the ongoing care, safety, and wellbeing of our residents..”
His statement did not address the union’s allegations of unfair labor practices.
But Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, the state’s largest nursing home coalition, said “there is a process and forum for sorting out the claims of unfair practices” and added that “there are always two sides that need to be heard.”
Barrett also urged all parties to stay at the bargaining table.
“Separating nursing home residents from their caregivers at this time would be especially harmful” following the worst of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, he said.
Though negotiations technically are between the unions and nursing home ownership, the state often plays a role in resolving labor-management disputes in this industry.
That’s because, on average, more than 80% of nursing home revenues involve patients whose care is covered by federal and state Medicaid dollars.
Nursing homes in Connecticut have lost millions of dollars since the pandemic struck in March 2020 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.
Lamont and legislators tried to mitigate those problems last spring when they approved a 4.5% Medicaid rate increase for wages and health benefits in 2021-22 and a 6.2% hike in 2022-23.
They also ordered $13 million extra for enhanced staff development and $86 million largely to mitigate lost revenues and added expenses homes have faced since the pandemic began.
Lamont’s office did not comment Tuesday afternoon after the union announced the release of strike notices.