Caregivers devoted to the sick and the elderly filtered into the state Capitol Tuesday wearing scrubs and T-shirts signaling the latest volley in the fight for a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
The nursing home workers called upon legislators to keep low-wage earners in mind as Democrats negotiate a final budget with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
New England Health Care Workers’ Union SEIU 1199 last month agreed to postpone a strike scheduled for April 24 that would have involved 3,500 workers in 27 nursing homes in 20 different cities and towns across the state. The union represents 25,000 workers, and about 7,500 of those members work in nursing homes.
The union has left the door open to a future strike. Union spokeswoman Jennifer Schneider said Tuesday that negotiations are ongoing.
The Democrats’ budget proposal, crafted by the Appropriations Committee, includes funding for many social services that received deep cuts in the governor’s proposal. The majority party’s two-year spending plan includes $9 million per year earmarked for wage increases to direct-care workers in long-term care facilities.
Wendy Smith, a certified nursing assistant at Davis Place in Danielson, said she wants legislators to know what it’s like to do double-duty as a parent and a health care worker. “I give it my all when I’m at work, and when I get home I have nothing left for my family,” she said.
The CNA makes under $15. It’s low pay for arduous work that leads to high turnover and affects the quality of care for residents, she said.
“We never have enough help. These people, I don’t think are getting the care they deserve. We just don’t have the time to spend with these people that we want to,” she said.
Matthew V. Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said he is hopeful the Democrats’ recommendation will make it into the final budget.
“Increasing the wages and benefits of hardworking nursing home employees with federal Medicaid funds has the added benefit of being very smart fiscal policy because the federal Medicaid program will cover fifty percent of the new costs,” Barrett said in a statement. “In this challenging fiscal environment, there really is no other viable option to increasing wages and benefits.”
Barrett has said that Medicaid payments are currently $28 per day below the cost of provider care to Medicaid recipients. Staffing accounts for 70 percent of nursing home costs.
Natasha Henry, of Hartford, said she makes $13.74 per hour as a CNA at Touchpoints rehabilitation facility in Manchester.
She cited a workload ranging from checking vital signs and weight to ensuring residents get the right food and clean laundry.
“They curse at us. We’ve got to take it,” she said. “It’s a lot, being a CNA.”
She said the employees work well as a team, but there are a lot of job responsibilities that are uncomfortable or even unhealthy. “You’ve got to bring [residents] outside to smoke; even in the winter, rain, you’ve still got to bring them outside to smoke. It’s tough being a CNA and getting $13.74 an hour,” she said.
Henry said she had to take on two nursing assistant jobs to make ends meet. She works about 60 hours per week to pay for rent, bills, and babysitting for her 8-year-old son.
Both Henry and Schneider said the additional money for wage increases in the Democrats’ budget proposal is encouraging, but it does not offer the full funding needed to provide a living wage.
“Because $9 million split between 22 nursing homes — that’s not a lot,” Henry said.
A recent study found that low-wage workers in Connecticut access $486 million in public assistance annually.
As part of their fight for a $15 minimum wage, the union workers are also supporting legislation that would impose a fee on large corporations who don’t pay their employees at least $15 an hour. The legislation seeks to charge big corporations like Wal-Mart $1 per hour for each employee paid $15 per hour or less.
The fiscal note estimates that about 146,710 of the 743,328 employees who work for companies with at least 500 employees in Connecticut would be covered under the bill. The note says bill would result in a revenue gain to the state of up to $152.6 million in 2016 and $305.1 million in future years.